“Safer at Home.” It's a slogan of choice for the mandatory confinement measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. But it's not true for everyone.
As the world's families hunker down, there's another danger, less obvious but just as insidious, that worries advocates and officials: a potential spike in domestic violence as victims spend day and night trapped at home with their abusers, with tensions rising, nowhere to escape, limited or no access to friends or relatives — and no idea when it will end.
“An abuser will use anything in their toolbox to exert their power and control, and COVID-19 is one of those tools," said Crystal Justice, who oversees development at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a 24/7 national hotline in the United States.
In cities and towns everywhere, concern is high, and meaningful numbers are hard to come by. In some cases, officials worry about a spike in calls, and in others, about a drop in calls, which might indicate that victims cannot find a safe way to reach out for help.
On a normal day, 1,800 to 2,000 people will call that national hotline. That number hasn't changed, but that doesn't surprise organizers. After natural disasters like earthquakes, Justice says, it's only when schools and workplaces reopen that people are finally able to reach out.
More significant, she says, is that more than 700 people who called the hotline between last Wednesday and Sunday cited the coronavirus as “a condition of their experience.” Some of the out-of-the-ordinary anecdotes staffers are hearing include abusers preventing their partners from going to their jobs in health care, or blocking them from needed health care services or from accessing safety tools like gloves or sanitizer.
In Los Angeles, officials have been bracing for a spike in abuse. “When cabin fever sets in, give it a week or two, people get tired of seeing each other and then you might have domestic violence,” said Alex Villanueva, the sheriff of Los Angeles County.
“We started getting on this as soon as soon as we started seeing the handwriting on the wall,” said Patti Giggans, executive director of the nonprofit Peace Over Violence in Los Angeles.
Before the statewide lockdown, the nonprofit began preparing online counseling sessions, and reaching out to clients to suggest ways to keep in contact — perhaps phone calls to counselors from a bathroom or during a walk, if an abuser is in the home.
In one recent case, Giggans said a woman showed up at the emergency room after a domestic violence incident, and Peace Over Violence staff had to talk to her over the phone to get her to safety in another county.
Because of virus measures, advocates “can’t show up at the police station now. We can’t show up at the hospital,” Giggans said. She said her staff has been told that shelters are taking people’s temperatures when they show up. The shelters are also working on plans to limit the proximity of people, in order to maintain social distancing, she said.
Such conditions are also an issue in Illinois, where shelters, already at capacity, were moving beds further apart to follow CDC guidelines.
"One of the key challenges of this health pandemic is that home isn’t a safe place for everyone,” said Amanda Pyron, executive director of The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence, based in Chicago. “Victims and the abusers have to stay at the scene of the crime.” The group helps run a statewide 24-hour hotline, which has seen a spike in the average number of daily calls, from about 60 to 90, since confinement orders went into effect last weekend.
Similar concerns have arisen in hard-hit continental Europe. In France, "it's an explosive cocktail," says Nathalie Tomasini, a leading lawyer for domestic violence victims there. Being trapped in an apartment with an abusive partner, she said, is akin to “a prison with no open window."
"Today we're confronted with ... a form of war," Tomasini said. In wars of the past, “men were on the front. Now they're at home. It's not the same war.”
At the National Federation of Women's Solidarity, which runs France's hotline, director Francoise Brie said that calls had dropped sharply from the usual 350 or 400 during the first week of confinement — though it remains too early to measure confinement's precise effects.
“We expect more serious acts, more repeated acts, more numerous," Brie said.
And at the group Women Safe, there's been an uptick in calls. One change, said Frederique Martz, who runs the group: Domestic violence victims are no longer being referred to hospitals which "are all saturated" with coronavirus cases.
In Spain, another country reeling from the virus, the Justice Ministry has stressed that no court will close during the crisis and that gender violence is among the key areas receiving special attention. There has been an uptick in domestic violence calls to the country's national 016 hotline, said Carmen Benito, president of Women Against Mistreatment.
“Women are much more vulnerable now," Benito said. "Some women have called us from the bathroom, asking what will happen if they leave, where can they go and if the government services are still working.”
In addition to intimate partner violence, concerns have also been raised about child abuse. In jurisdictions everywhere, the chief worry is not only that coronavirus tensions could trigger more abuse, but that with kids out of school, more cases could go unreported or unnoticed.
Calls to Missouri’s child abuse and neglect hotline dropped by half as the virus first struck the state, from about 680 calls the week of March 12 to about 320 the following week.
“If kids are not at school, those reports aren’t getting made,” said Jessica Seitz, public policy director for the advocacy group Missouri Kids First. “That’s really a crack in the system.”
Jennifer Tidball, Missouri’s acting social services director, said that while it’s normal for calls to decrease when school is out, “this is much more than we would have expected.”
Minnesota has seen a 30 percent drop in reports, according to the state's Department of Human Services, which said it was “deeply concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on children and families across Minnesota.” And calls reporting child abuse have sharply dropped in Georgia, too, according to data from the state's Division of Family and Children Services, which usually handles about 300 reports a day. Last Thursday, it handled 120.
Without educators in place, “We really need neighbors to check on next-door children and children in the neighborhood," said Tom Rawlings, the division's director.
Back at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which is based in Austin, Texas but has staff working remotely now, advocates are urging people in potentially risky situations to use the more discreet chat and text options available on their website, and to formulate a personal safety plan. This could include setting up a standing call with relatives or establishing a code phrase to signal an emergency.
Advocates like Justice say it's far too early to link the saga of coronavirus isolation to any long-term trends. But they're hardly filled with optimism.
“We know this is affecting survivors,” she says. “It doesn't necessarily mean new abuse is happening, but we know that abusers will use any tool at their disposal.”
“And isolation is one of the strongest tools.”