While many of us have been sheltering in place during the pandemic, our complaints have centered on canceled vacations, missing brunch with the girls, or running out of shows to watch on Netflix. But for some women and men, staying at home isn’t just annoying—it’s dangerous.
Nancy Friauf, the president and CEO of Partnership Against Domestic Violence (PADV) in metro Atlanta, tells me that as the stay-at-home restrictions are lifting in Georgia, the shelter’s hotline has had more phone calls, and she and her team are seeing how abusers have used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to control their partners. She’s heard reports of abusers shaming victims for trying to leave and accusing them of trying to spread the virus.
“We had a woman in the shelter, and as COVID-19 hit, she transitioned to her own apartment,” Friauf says. “She said she didn’t think she could have survived sheltering in place with her husband.”
The pandemic has radically changed all our lives, but victims of domestic violence face a particularly difficult challenge. Lila, a domestic abuse survivor whose name has been changed for security reasons, says it’s important to note that economic instability and health crises don’t turn normal people into abusers, but they do make abuse worse.
“People don’t magically become abusers because they’re stressed,” she says. But “incidents of violence, that propel a phone call [to the hotline], are on the rise.”
Whether or not someone you know is in a domestic violence situation, learning the signs of abuse—and how they can be exacerbated by a stressful situation like a pandemic—is important, so people in those situations know they’re not alone.
What constitutes domestic abuse?
When most people think of domestic abuse, they picture a relationship like Celeste’s from the novel-turned-HBO series Big Little Lies. But not every abusive relationship involves physical violence. Kristal, a domestic violence survivor who got help from PADV, tells me she didn’t realize she was in an abusive relationship for a long time.
She was sitting in the PADV building after, with no warning, her partner had taken their two-year-old daughter thousands of miles away. Kristal had no idea where her daughter was, and since her little girl had the same last name as her father, the police refused to help.
After Kristal was finally referred to PADV months later, she picked up a pamphlet that explained how an abusive relationship isn’t always about physical violence. Sometimes it’s controlling the partner through other forms of manipulation, such as emotional, and verbal abuse. “I was like, wow, I didn’t really think about these things as domestic violence,” she explains.
PADV was able to give her the legal help to get her daughter back at the end of last year, and now Kristal says she wishes she’d know about the shelter sooner. “If I had known earlier in the relationship, that I could have gone, I would have,” she says. “I wasn’t aware that I was in a domestic violence situation. I didn’t recognize the signs of it. If he’s talking down to you, calling you names, that’s a form of abuse.”
The National Domestic Violence hotline explains that domestic violence is simply “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” When an abuser feels a loss of control, he or she often escalates the abuse.
Unfortunately, there are few greater thieves of control than worldwide health crises like the one we’re in now.
“What we know to be true, and we’ve seen it through various scenarios, is when society is under a serious pressure point, you see domestic violence go up,” explains Alejandra Y. Castillo, the CEO of the YWCA. “You see it when there’s a recession. This in no way should ever excuse a rise in domestic violence. But what we’re saying is we’ve seen how those spikes do occur, especially in moments of emergency and crises.”
Shelters adapt for the pandemic
Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, reports that the number of calls to the hotline has remained steady recently, hovering in the 1,800–2,000 per day range. “However, we are seeing an increase in the number of survivors reaching out who are concerned with COVID-19 and how their abusive partner is leveraging COVID-19 to further isolate, coerce, or increase fear in the relationship.”
As Friauf noted about survivors in Atlanta, domestic violence shelters are seeing ways in which abusers are using the coronavirus to make up for the control they feel they’ve lost due to the pandemic. (An abuse “survivor” refers to any woman who has experienced or is experiencing domestic abuse.)
“We’re hearing from survivors where the abuser is using COVID-19 as a tactic,” says Barbara Niess-May, executive director of SafeHouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
For example, she’s heard of abusers claiming to have the coronavirus and threatening to sneeze on their partners, and others convincing their partners that they have the virus but can’t get testing. These types of manipulative tactics, plus the likelihood that survivors are spending more time at home with their abusers, make getting help difficult. “One resource a survivor has is privacy,” Niess-May explains. “Right now, that doesn’t exist.”
For those in controlling relationships, time to oneself can be scarce, but it’s necessary to make calls for help—and to start setting up a feasible plan to leave.
Niess-May says SafeHouse is still providing video counseling and offering other services to survivors, but compared with before, the level of requests for help at the shelter “seems awfully quiet.”
“We think it’s because survivors don’t have the privacy to reach out for the support they need,” she says. “That actually scares me more than a lot of people reaching out for help and support.”
The YWCA is the largest network for domestic violence survivors in the United States. With over 200 local locations, the organization serves 2.3 million women and girls, and with this much impact, it’s important that shelters not close their doors.
“We have to find ways to be nimble and at the same time ensure we are protecting the health and safety of women and children,” Castillo explains. “You just can’t close and say we’ll be back in three months.”
To help women while maintaining safety protocols, shelters have been putting survivors up in hotels (or even RVs, at a Nashville YWCA) for 14 days before they can enter. They also have been providing other resources like online counseling and diapers and food for mothers and families.
“We’re not frontliners like the medical community, but we are frontliners for the social fabric of community,” Castillo says. “Communities are going to need to have institutions like ours to help them heal.”
Shelter leaders report that legal advocacy, as well as shelter support, have become difficult during the pandemic. There is one silver lining, though: Jessi Luepnitz, program director at the YWCA in Rock County, Wisconsin, says restraining order statements are being approved more quickly, perhaps because they’re now filed electronically. This is the easier part: supporting women who’ve already sought help.
“I know that not just my program but some other programs, we are all very fearful that this is a sort of—calm before the storm is not the correct term—we’re all bracing for an impact when the order is lifted,” Luepnitz says. “That’s when people are going to be able to reach out.”
How to help those living with abuse
The federal government included $45 million for Family Violence Prevention and Services Act programs in the coronavirus-relief CARES Act, including funding for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. A group of advocates for survivors is pushing for continuing financial support in the next stimulus package. While one can lobby the local and federal government to continue to support domestic violence survivors, that’s not the only way you can help.
If you suspect that someone you know is in an abusive relationship, the worst thing you can do is ask them why they don’t just “up and leave.” To use simplistic terms about their complex experience can feel belittling and dismissive of what they’re going through. “Be a little more encouraging so they want to talk about it,” Kristal suggests.
“How people talk about these issues is really important,” adds Lila. She says that an abuser will attempt to normalize the situation, making the survivor feel that she’s the irrational one for thinking that something is wrong. If survivors open up to you about their situation, Lila advises, “the key is letting them talk,” not making judgments about their situation. It may be so tempting to try to fix everything for them, but that won’t help as much in the long run.
Lila says she remembers feeling judged by friends and acquaintances who tried to “fix” her. Instead, she suggests asking questions like, “What do you feel? What is your gut instinct?” That takes the focus off how the situation is perceived by others, and puts it on what the survivor is actually experiencing. Asking about how she feels and what she wants to do can help an abuse survivor shift back to being in the driver’s seat of her experiences.
“One of the most important things is remembering that the role of trying to help someone is to empower them to do what they think they need to do, and when they need to do it,” she advises. For example, throughout most of Big Little Lies, Celeste won’t admit to her friends, or even her therapist, that she’s in an abusive relationship. They can’t help her escape, but they can ask her the right questions; in the end, it’s her decision to leave. For a person who is used to being controlled, it doesn’t help to become just another person telling them what to do, even if you actually intend to help.
As we continue to have conversations about domestic abuse in the face of the pandemic, it’s important to remember that abuse didn’t begin a few months ago, and it won’t be over when life goes back to normal. “It’s good to have that conversation,” Lila says, “but even after this crisis is over, survivors still need help, and they still need support.”
If you or a friend needs help in an abusive situation, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.