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For domestic violence victims, stay-at-home orders do not offer safety

90% of Americans are under stay-at-home orders

Their marriage wasn't perfect before the couple started working from home amid the shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic, but the underlying problems bubbled dangerously close to the surface with their forced isolation and constant contact, the wife told CBS News. 

Like millions of other Americans, the couple has been forced into this situation because of the pandemic sweeping the country. Non-essential workers are working from home, or have been furloughed or laid off, and the ripple effects can be seen in millions of unemployment claims filed over the past month.

The couple has been married for a few years, and spending so much time together with their active toddler these past few weeks has put them both on edge, she said. The wife was previously in an abusive relationship, and she said she now recognizes the red flags that have recently emerged in her marriage. She requested anonymity due to concerns about her personal safety.

"I closed my office and have been working from home, so we can't really go anywhere to get away from each other. When we argue, we can't cool off or escape for a day," the wife told CBS News. 

She thinks her current husband has been verbally abusive in the past, but said she had found ways to excuse his behavior. Now the intensity of their arguments has been rising. 

"We're all living in a pressure cooker with economic tension, physical restriction within our homes, and fear everywhere," she said.

She said the couple recently got into what seemed to be a minor spat, but it ended with the husband becoming physically abusive. The wife said she felt trapped. She said she used the skills gained from her last marriage to deescalate the situation, but now she feels as if she is walking on eggshells. She has made a few emergency escape plans, but now, she doesn't have access to a counselor.

She said her biggest fear is being trapped in her house with her husband for an undefined period of time. Even though public health officials recommend remaining indoors as much as possible, she's trying to spend more time out of the house.

"It's a harm reduction decision at this point," she said.

Americans have been told that staying home is the safest option. But for domestic violence victims, that can be a trap.

"Domestic violence is rooted in power and control, and I don't think there's been another time in our lived history when any of us have felt more of a lack of control," said Barbara Paradiso, the director of the Center on Domestic Violence at the University of Colorado Denver, in an interview with CBS News.

Domestic violence is a hidden threat in American life, lurking behind closed doors and affecting people of all ages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in four women and nearly one in 10 men experience sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetimes. Intimate partner violence affects 12 million people a year.

Stay-at-home orders have been implemented in over 40 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to stop the spread of coronavirus. But what may be safe practice for society as a whole can be dangerous for domestic violence victims. These stay-at-home orders make it more difficult to call domestic violence hotlines without being overheard, or visit shelters undetected.

Some regions are seeing spikes in domestic violence complaints and requests for shelter. Houston police chief Art Acevedo said last week that domestic violence calls were up 6% in the city the month of March. Two-thirds of police calls in Minnesota the first two days after its stay-at-home order was issued were domestic violence-related, Governor Tim Walz said last month. Domestic violence calls to the Phoenix Police Department in Arizona between March 20 and 27 were up 21% compared to the same week in 2019.

However, some areas are instead seeing a drop-off in domestic violence calls, as victims holed up with their abusers become more isolated. According to the Seattle Times, phone calls made to New Beginnings, a Seattle-based nonprofit with a domestic violence hotline, decreased in March. 

Christina So, the communications director for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said in an interview with CBS News that the hotline has not seen an increase in calls from victims in recent weeks.

"Historically, with other disasters like the 2008 economic downturn and Hurricane Katrina, we see a spike in contact volume once things go back to normal," So said.

So said that hotline workers were already beginning to hear accounts from survivors about how the pandemic is worsening the situation at home. Some have reported that abusers are taking the opportunity to prevent them from spending time with their children.

So said some callers said abusers were trying to gaslight them into believing that they were going to spread the virus, or that the virus doesn't exist. Others are withholding items like hand sanitizer, or preventing victims from seeking medical treatment.

"If you think about how isolated a lot of folks who aren't even experiencing domestic violence are feeling right now — that isolation is just amplified for a domestic violence survivor," So said.

Being forced to stay home with abusers may have long-lasting effects not just on victims, but also children present in the house. 

"There is a likelihood that primary and secondary victims — so a victim and their children — will experience trauma, and then have that trauma to deal with as they move into the future," Paradiso, from the University of Colorado Denver, said. The school's Center on Domestic Violence helps provide resources for K-12 schools to support students who may have unsafe home situations and Paradiso said that despite school closures, the center is still working with schools to provide resources for children.

Takisha Richardson, an attorney at the firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Florida who represents domestic violence victims, noted that children are often able to escape domestic violence by going to school, and raise awareness about their home situation to trusted adults. The same is true of adult victims who may find relief and support at work.

"Most of those calls or cries for help don't come when the survivor is at home," Richardson said.

The situation is dire for domestic violence victims, but that doesn't mean that they are totally without assistance.

Safe Horizon, a victim assistance nonprofit in New York City, continues to operate its hotline, as well as its eight domestic violence shelters in all five boroughs. Maureen Curtis, the vice president of criminal justice and court programs at Safe Horizon, said that several initiatives are operating remotely.

Safe Horizon has advocates working with the New York Police Department and in family courts in the city to assist victims navigating the criminal justice system.

"Even though we're working remotely, because of our years of working with the police, years of working in the family and criminal courts, we not only have the knowledge but we have relationships with people in these systems," Curtis said.

The New York City Mayor's Office to End Domestic and Gender-based Violence (ENDGBV) is also still in operation. "Family justice centers" operated by the office are closed, but victims can still reach out to these centers remotely and be connected with resources across the city.

"Our Centers continue to provide crucial crisis support and advocacy by connecting survivors to immediate safety planning, shelter assistance, legal consultations, and more," ENDGBV Commissioner Cecile Noel told CBS News in a statement.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for victims across the country, and can help connect callers to local resources. If people are unable to speak safely, they can chat with an advocate online on the hotline's website or text LOVEIS to 22522.

But the onus to take action should not rest solely on the victim.

"As a society, no matter how far we've come in understanding domestic violence and being more aware, we still judge and blame survivors every day for the decisions that they make," Curtis said. In a time of unprecedented stress and trauma, it's important to support survivors of domestic violence in any way possible.

Members of the community can keep an eye out for potential victims, and pay attention to whether a situation seems dangerous for a neighbor or friend.

"It would be wonderful for people to realize that there is potential danger for their neighbors," Paradiso said. She urged victims to "trust their instincts" and not be afraid to reach out for help.

Richardson also advocated for a policy of "see something, say something."

"When you suspect something is happening, you might be the difference between saving someone's life and them ending up dead," Richardson said. She noted that stay-at-home orders don't prevent people from making runs to the grocery store, and suggested that victims try to visit shelters or make calls to hotlines while conducting necessary errands if they are able.

If a person specifically knows that their friend or family member is experiencing domestic violence, it is important to reach out to them, So said.

"Isolation is one of the strongest tactics an abuser can use, so it's really important to build community around a survivor," So said. "For people who know and care about survivors, now is a really good time to connect with them."


Resources for domestic violence survivors

  • If you are in immediate danger, call 911.
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY (for people who are deaf or hard of hearing), or if you're unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health: Victims can visit womenshealth.gov to find a list of resources and programs that provide support for abuse victims in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Safe Horizon: Call 1-800-621-HOPE (4673), or visit safehorizon.org to chat with an advocate.
  • New York City Mayor's Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence: NYC Family Justice Centers (FJCs) remain available by phone with guidance on immediate safety planning, shelter assistance, and community resources. Reach out on Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can also visit nyc.gov/NYCHOPE for additional resources and information.
  • Victims can visit WomensLaw.org and search state by state for information on laws including restraining orders and child custody information.
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