Social Issues

Advocates: Pandemic making it harder for domestic violence victims to leave

A building has people sitting outside on the front porch.
A group of women and children sit on the steps of the shelter in a file photo provided by Women's Advocates. Domestic violence shelters are still open during the pandemic. But advocates say stay-at-home orders are making it harder for people to leave abusive situations — or even just to call for help.
Courtesy of Megan Dobrat

On a normal day at the Women’s Advocates shelter in St. Paul, there are kids running around inside or playing on the playground in the back — not anymore. 

These days, it’s quiet, even in the middle of the day, “and that is very strange,” said Mary Beth Becker, a crisis and resource advocate there.

The shelter moved some of its residents to hotels to make sure there’s enough room for people to socially distance during the pandemic. And the people who are in the shelter are having to stay away from each other, too, in the dining room and in other common areas. 

Stay-at-home orders allow people to leave abusive situations. But advocates say some victims feel the pandemic has given them fewer options.

Callers have told Becker they aren’t planning to leave now because they’re afraid of catching the virus. Or they can’t get away from their abuser long enough to plan their escape, she said. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been fewer calls to the shelter’s hotline. Yet calls to the statewide hotline are up and so are domestic violence calls to the St. Paul Police Department. Other advocacy groups and police departments are seeing similarly confusing numbers. 

Mary Beth Becker, crisis and resource advocate at Women’s Advocates.
Mary Beth Becker, a crisis and resource advocate at the Women’s Advocates, has changed what she tells people who call the shelter’s hotline. Instead of helping people file orders of protection or plan for a place to stay, she talks them through how to stay safe at home.
Courtesy of Mary Beth Becker

Of the people who do call for help, Becker said some lock themselves in the bathroom and turn on the shower to drown out their voices, though she’s not sure how much protection that offers. 

“I have to wonder how effective that is, whether they’re really able to not be heard by their abuser while they’re making that call,” she said, adding that the hotline has also been getting a lot of calls over the lunch hour from essential workers.

For them, lunch hour is the only time they can get away from work and their abusive partners. 

Advocacy groups and shelters are trying to help people navigate the new reality, while figuring out ways to stay safe. 

Becker has changed the advice she gives people who say they can’t leave a violent situation now. Instead of helping them make plans to snag important papers and have a place to go, she’s making sure they have a way to stay safe in their home.

“If physical violence is going to happen,” she tells them, “make sure that you are as small as possible, make sure that you’re away from areas that have weapons, knives.” 

Dealing with abuse — especially while on lockdown with the abuser — is incredibly stressful and it’s affecting peoples’ mental health, too. 

Lindley King is a counselor at a shelter in Washington state, which has been dealing with COVID-19 for a few weeks longer than Minnesota has. 

Lindley King is a therapist at LifeWire.
Lindley King is a therapist at LifeWire, a domestic violence advocacy group.
Courtesy of Lindley King

King, who uses the pronoun they, said they’re starting to see patterns. For some people, the isolation and fear is bringing up bad memories, and in some cases triggering PTSD. 

And although it might sound counterintuitive, other people are actually doing better, said King.

“People who are experiencing depression feel like their sadness is less of a burden on people right now,” they said, “And people with anxiety, you know, we’ve been preparing for the worst our entire lives and that’s happening now, so it feels kind of OK.” 

But there are also clients who’ve had to quit getting mental health care for now because they simply don’t have a safe or private place to talk. 

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233.

The Day One Crisis Hotline is 1-866-223-1111.

This story is part of Call to Mind, our MPR initiative to foster new conversations about mental health.