How to Help Domestic Violence Survivors During The Coronavirus Pandemic

You never know what goes on behind closed doors, and as doors shutter across the country for quarantine, it's cause for concern for many women living in danger. Here's what to know, how to help, and how to get help if you need it.

When It's Not Safe to be Home: Domestic Violence and Coronavirus
Photo: Jan Hakan Dahlstrom/Getty Images

Doraina was spending the weekend with her grandchildren when she first heard about the recommendations for social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19 in New York. The thought of people being forced to isolate at home was troubling for her, whose work as a minister and member of a gospel choir is centered on community. But it also carried a reminder of an experience she had left behind 14 years earlier — an abusive marriage.

“I spent most of my time in my room, to be totally honest, with the shades drawn in a state of depression,” Doraina, 52, says of that time. Social isolation is both a tool of an abuser, and a symptom of partner abuse — and now, it's a version of something we're all supposed to be doing.

As much of the world is transitioning to a work-from-home model, and schools and businesses remain closed, there is heightened concern about how this will affect people who experience intimate partner violence at home. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in four women and nearly one in 10 men have experienced “contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”

Parts of China, where the coronavirus outbreak first began, reported an uptick in cases of domestic violence with reports to one local police station nearly tripling in February, according to the Chinese English-language website Sixth Tone, compared to the same period the previous year. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, hotlines in the United States receive over 20,000 calls in a “typical” day in this country. The conditions established by a mass quarantine are likely to cause this incidence to rise.

Stories of abuse are often a powerful reminder that we don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors. But as more and more doors are shuttered, Kimberlina Kavern, senior director of the Crime Victim Assistance Program at Safe Horizon, emphasizes that social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation. Here, what we should know about — and what we can do to help — those for whom home isn’t always a safe place to be.

How domestic violence prevention organizations are responding to coronavirus:

Even as many schools and offices are closed, domestic violence shelters remain open and food pantries staffed. In addition to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, organizations like New York’s Safe Horizon offer people the ability to discreetly chat with professionals online. The website features a quick exit button that can help keep the interaction private, and it is engineered to not appear in any search history. This can be particularly important for individuals using a shared computer in close quarters with a partner who is abusive and controlling.

Judy Harris Kluger, who spent 25 years as a judge before becoming the executive director of New York’s Sanctuary for Families, notes that while many courts are closed for non-emergencies, survivors who need them can still get orders of protection. Sanctuary for Families lawyers are still available for those in need. They have created specific resources for survivors making safety plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the non-pandemic related safety strategies, such as establishing a “code word” with a trusted loved one, still apply. With school closures leaving more children at home, it’s essential that they also be made aware of the “code word,” a pre-established safest room at home, and any phone numbers they can call for help if a parent is unable to.

Sanctuary is still providing cash assistance, but Harris Kluger notes that with fluxuations in the stock market, their budget and fundraising efforts could be affected. They’ve already had to adapt their day-to-day operations because of the pandemic. The organization offers a job-training program for survivors that is now being run via Zoom, and Doraina, who is a survivor leader at Sanctuary for Families, is arranging a weekly check-in call with other survivors. “Twenty years ago, we could not have done what we're doing now, Harris Kluger says. “We're able to do a lot of work because of the technological solutions we could craft.”

Why quarantining at home is familiar, and particularly dangerous, for abuse survivors:

Even as organizations like Safe Horizon and Sanctuary for Families continue to operate, in new ways and with many staffers working from home, leaders in the field point to the fact that many of their clients are trapped in abusive homes.

“Isolation manifests itself in lots of different ways, but not wanting you to spend time with other people, not wanting you to participate in your normal activities — now COVID-19 can be used as an excuse for that,” says Katie Hood, CEO of One Love, which educates young people about the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, as well as early warning signs of abuse.

Because isolation is already so prevalent in abusive relationships, a key for survivors is creating strategies to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. “Our goal is not to get survivors to leave abusive relationships, it's to help them be safer in whatever way that looks like for them,” Kavern of Safe Horizon says. “For many people it is choosing to stay in an abusive relationship, but just be safer.”

For those who do choose to leave, actually getting out can take years. The financial hardships and emotional stress families face during the coronavirus pandemic could easily exacerbate cycles of abuse. Amelia*, 49, recalls multiple times, even after repeated police incidents, when she went back to her husband. Though she held an MBA and had previously worked in investment banking, when her son was born she became a stay at home mom without income of her own to rely on in order to leave.

Amelia left her husband last year after 10 years enduring abuse. She tells InStyle that shame about coming forward with her struggles contributed to how long she stayed. “I was a mom at a local private school; we were part of a country club," she says. "I pulled myself back from a lot of things. I think it's a two-prong situation: It starts off when the abuser isolates you, and then [eventually] you isolate yourself because you just don't want people to know,” she says.

Though her socioeconomic circumstances were much different, Doraina too remembers being trapped in the cycle of abuse. Repeatedly going back to her husband who abused her verbally, physically and sexually for 15 years. “I didn't have a high school diploma. I didn't have the things that it took for me to just get up and leave,” Doraina says.

Amelia is part of a Facebook group for abuse survivors run by her therapist. She says abusive relationships are often about co-dependency and, in times of fear and vulnerability like during a pandemic, people can feel stuck with — or in need of — the very partners who harm them. “I think it's not a time where people are going to leave bad relationships. I think it's a time where a lot of people are going to run back to relationships that maybe they worked really hard to get out of,” she says, based on conversations she's seen in that group.

What to know if you're in an abusive, dangerous situation:

Anyone feeling unsafe in their home can and should reach out to any of the hotlines or organizations mentioned above if they are able, but it’s far from their only option. Practically speaking, Kavern says it’s important for people who might be quarantined with an abuser to brainstorm strategies to avoid encounters in areas like bathrooms and kitchens where there are more hard surfaces and access to knives or dangerous objects. Of course, anyone in that kind of iminent danger should also call the police if they are able.

For her part, Amelia encourages survivors who might be struggling to use the pandemic as a chance to reach out virtually, join a Facebook group run by a therapist, or connect with a professional to set up a facetime session. The pandemic is also a reason for survivors to reconnect with loved ones, even if they’ve lost touch.

“Once you're down the rabbit hole of being isolated, you sort of lose your confidence in your ability to reach out to your friends and your family,” says Hood. “You haven't done it for so long. But now is a time when we're really trying to do that again.”

For any who might be struggling in the face of this pandemic, the decision to seek help has to be yours, but Doraina has a clear message: “Believe in yourself, believe that you can actually make it, she says. “You are worth your work, your freedom. You're worth having your voice. You're worth being happy. You're worth having peace.”

What we can do to help:

Even as many are self quarantining, people are participating in virtual happy hours and virtual watch parties. Finding ways to create community is essential for abuse survivors, too. If you know someone who might be in an abusive home, the coronavirus can be a reason to check in even if you’ve lost touch. It’s a natural time to do so.

“Reach out to your neighbors. If you haven't seen their car move or their curtains go up in a few days, send a text message, check in to see how things are,” Kavern says.

Keeping in regular communication with anyone you fear might be a victim can be critical. “Offer a safe word for when they may be in trouble and need help. Offer your phone or computer to research the resources available to them without the risk of tracing technology usage. If possible, suggest doing necessary errands together (keeping a safe distance) such as trips to the bank and grocery shopping,” says Nathaniel Fields, President and CEO of the Urban Resource Institute.

For those who are able, donating to support domestic violence organizations is helpful as they continue their work and prepare for a potential increase in outreach by survivors.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of survivors.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.

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