As the country comes to terms with the scope of COVID-19, Americans are being urged to stay home. But for victims of domestic violence, home can be a dangerous place. Advocates worry that isolation caused by social distancing and widespread shutdowns will make victims of domestic violence even more vulnerable to abuse.
“We’re very concerned right now because isolation is a primary tool that people use to abuse their families,” said Vickie Smith, executive director of Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV). “This has the potential to create unsafe environments.”
Abusers frequently attempt to cut victims off from support systems such as family and friends because the more isolated a victim becomes, the easier it is for the abuser to exert control. As COVID-19 measures are put in place, the social safety net victims may depend on is disappearing. Neighbors, coworkers and family members – people victims may have seen regularly just last week – are now absent from victims’ daily lives.
The signs of domestic violence are often subtle, not always manifesting in something obvious like a physical injury. When victims are isolated from the people who know them well, suddenly there’s no one around to notice if something seems off. Advocates worry that this sharp increase in social isolation will embolden abusers, leaving victims at even greater risk.
“We are concerned about a potential increase in domestic violence, both intimate partner abuse and child abuse, due to schools, workplaces, places of worship, and other community agencies being closed,” says Mary Koll, McLean County assistant state’s attorney.
Koll’s concern stems not only from the isolation caused by closures, but also from other factors that have the potential to trigger abuse. The disruption to routine and increased financial strain caused by the COVID-19 outbreak can further destabilize a dangerous domestic situation. Advocates warn that stressors such as having to care for children who would normally be in school and worry over lost wages and layoffs are significant risk factors. Domestic abuse is about power and control. An abuser who feels a loss of control will seek to regain it by exerting increased power over his or her victims.
Koll wants to assure the community that although many local agencies are closing or offering limited services, her office is still operating.
“We’re handling all domestic violence arrests in the same manner as always: Screening new arrests for charges every morning, requesting appropriate bonds and bond conditions, taking victims’ calls and offering them assistance and referrals," she said.
Mid Central Community Action, which provides services to survivors of domestic violence and offers emergency shelter services through Neville House, continues to operate as well. According to Associate Executive Director Senna Adjabeng, some changes have been made to MCCA procedures, but anyone needing information or assistance can still call the 24-hour domestic violence hotline at (309) 827-7070.
Adjabeng says that Neville House shelter, which served 87 adults and 69 children last year, has implemented enhanced sanitation and prescreening procedures to protect clients, so anyone who may need to escape an abusive household can be assured they’re not exposing themselves or their family to increased risk due to COVID-19.
Vickie Smith, of ICADV, said her staff is also “working diligently to figure things out and how to keep people in shelter safe.” ICDAV has closed their offices due to the outbreak, but staff continues to work from home. The change, says Smith, hasn’t been easy.
“Our staff have children who aren’t in school. Many are caretakers to the elderly. And this is all compounded by working in a system that provides emergency services.”
Still, says Smith, the Illinois Domestic Violence hotline (877) 863-6338 is operating 24 hours a day and calls to the ICADV office will be returned promptly.
Home Sweet Home Ministries in Bloomington, which provides services to the homeless population including victims of domestic violence, has seen a sharp increase in the need for assistance since community closures have taken effect. Director of client services Debbie Reese is particularly concerned about the effects of the outbreak on the population she serves.
“The very, very sad truth is all people experiencing or having experienced trauma are in a heightened state of stress right now,” said Reese. “I’m afraid to think of the consequences of the heightened fear, panic and chaos on those who are most vulnerable.”
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