Last August, a woman called a domestic violence hotline in Utah four times. She needed shelter so that she and her children could get out of a violent situation. But more than six months later, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), she is still living with this attacker, waiting to find a safe place to go.
It is not an outlier. For countless survivors, escaping from an attacker takes time – both to find the conviction and the resources to flee and to obtain at least basic accommodation. But while the coronavirus is spreading nationwide, the victims face an unprecedented complication. Public health officials and government officials have unequivocally communicated it: do not leave your home.
Their advice – urging Americans to stay in their homes as much as possible – aims to stem the spread of the disease. And this is important advice, keeping exposure to a minimum and thus ensuring that more people are not infected. But for those who are victims of domestic violence, recommendations to protect them could expose them to further abuse.
“The reality is that home is not a safe place if you are with an abusive partner,” said Kelly Starr, director of public affairs for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “The isolation that protects us from the virus is isolation that can make a situation of violence more dangerous.”
Domestic violence is about power and control. One way to exercise both is to keep a partner away from the rest of the world. “Isolation is a huge factor for someone to gain and maintain power and control over another person,” says Starr. Attackers often cut off family and friends while controlling where and when they can go. Many of these same conditions are now imposed by the coronavirus crisis, which forces people to stay inside and away from others as much as possible. Now the attackers have “full access to what someone is doing 24/7, it’s really dangerous for the survivors,” she said.
“An attacker can use any tool to control his victim, including a national health problem like Covid-19,” said Deborah Vagins, President and CEO of NNEDV. “We really fear that [abuse] incidents will increase and situations will become more dangerous. “
Staying away can also help cool an abusive situation. But now there is “[fewer] separation options and a break between partners, ”says Starr. “It can really degenerate from an abusive situation to a more dangerous situation.”
Because adults and children are trapped at home, victims will have fewer opportunities to seek help. Even something as small as calling a hotline could become impossible in nearby shared premises. And while some victims may turn to online chats or text messaging, finding private time to even formulate a plan or examine local resources will prove difficult.
Lawyers all agree that the coronavirus will not cause domestic violence. A pandemic does not force someone to become violent or abusive. But for those who are in a difficult situation, the crisis could increase the number of incidents or make them even more dangerous. With more people at home working remotely or not at work, attackers will have more free time. It can also increase violence. “It can really make the situation worse,” says Starr.
“I worry about an increase in abuse for those who are already subjected to it,” says Vagins. “I fear lethality will go up.”
Nationally, the realities of social distancing are taking hold. But for this group, the isolation is pronounced, and the house is not a refuge from danger, it is simply zero.
“Domestic violence is already a really isolating experience for people,” says Beth Hassett, CEO of WEAVE, a provider of domestic violence and sexual assault services in Sacramento, California. Now everyone across the country is more disconnected than usual. “When you don’t have as much outside contact with other people,” says Starr, “you can feel really alone, and it can be more dangerous for survivors.”
In addition, strict quarantine deprives victims of access to other people who can validate their experiences. Abusers will often tell their partners that the abuse is their fault or that they are the only ones to experience it. “It makes you feel more stuck,” says Starr. “When you don’t talk to other people as much, it gives them so much more weight and so much more power, and you feel so alone.”