Stay-at-home orders meant to protect the public during the COVID-19 pandemic have had worrying implications for victims of domestic violence, whose homes are often places of danger.
As people in Missouri have sheltered inside to prevent the spread of the virus, domestic violence service providers have been alert to the possibility that abuse might become even harder to report.
“Isolation is a well-researched tactic of control,” said Elizabeth Herrera Eichenberger, director of True North of Columbia, a domestic violence victim service program. “This is the perfect storm for very bad things to happen. The go-to method (for abusers) is, ‘I’m going to isolate you. I’m going to control you. I want to know where you are at all times.’”
Isolation alone is not the sole concern. The unprecedented stress of the pandemic, like worries about unemployment or getting sick, could also exacerbate violence, according to the American Psychological Association.
Service providers have been working to keep clients safe while still maintaining what several emphasized are essential services, such as shelters, case management and legal aid.
Requests for services increased in March for some organizations that provide assistance to victims, while others observed decreases, said Jennifer Carter Dochler, the public policy director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
That month, there were 110 reported domestic violence incidents in Columbia compared to the 83 reported incidents last year, according to statistics from the Columbia Police Department. The number has fluctuated in recent years, with 110 reports in March 2018 and 93 in March 2017.
It might never be possible, however, to measure or know the extent of violence people in abusive situations experienced during the pandemic’s isolation.
If abuse is not being reported because finding a safe time to call is more difficult in isolation, service providers may never know whether violence has risen.
More than 35,000 Missouri residents, almost 4,000 of whom were in central Missouri, received services from domestic violence organizations in 2018, according to a report from the MCADSV.
Internationally, countries under lockdown have reported an increase in domestic violence. France reported a 30% increase, and some parts of Britain reported a 20% increase within the first weeks of lockdown, according to The New York Times.
Cities in the U.S. also had increased reports. Domestic violence cases surged in Boston, Houston and Seattle in March, according to NBC News.
At True North, hotline calls have been slightly lower than usual. Herrera Eichenberger said that is expected but worrying.
“People are very fearful of leaving their home or confused about what is open,” she said.
In Columbia, True North changed the way services were delivered but not the services offered, Herrera Eichenberger said. Nonresidential services, such as counseling, have been offered remotely.
To promote safety in the shelter, True North developed a process that places new residents in a separate location for several days to ensure they are healthy before they enter the main shelter.
MU students also still have access to the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center despite classes moving online. Services are available 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, with advocacy available via Zoom and email for those who need it.
The RSVP Center has served 80 students thus far in the 2019–20 academic year but hasn’t seen an increase in requests for services since classes moved online in March, MU spokesperson Liz McCune wrote in an email.
As for law enforcement, Columbia Police have still been responding to on-site calls for life-threatening situations, including instances of domestic violence, spokesperson Brittany Hilderbrand wrote in an email.
At Harmony House, about half of staff members are working remotely, Farmer said. Essential workers, including advocates and the kitchen and child care teams, continue to work in-person to keep the shelter running while case managers provide referrals and support over the phone.
Some life-skills classes and support groups have been suspended. The shelter also wasn’t allowing visitors, is doing extra cleaning and sanitation and has set aside quarantine beds in case anyone gets sick. On April 15, it began daily temperature checks of staff and guests.
The Victim Center in Springfield is also providing crisis support, advocacy and most therapy over the phone, according to its website.
Green Hills Women’s Shelter, which has shelters in both Trenton and Cameron, is still providing services to victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence while trying to address health concerns, Director Lisa Dicks said.
Staff members have also been helping residents come up with backup plans for what they would do if it became unsafe to stay in the shelter, Dicks said. They’ve put up signs about hand-washing and are asking more questions about travel.
“We’re not trying to be snoopy,” Dicks said, but they do want to monitor the situation more closely if someone has been somewhere with positive cases.
As an essential service, “we will continue to run a shelter,” Dicks said.
Mason said Rose Brooks’ emergency shelter is accepting new residents on a limited basis and encouraging people to reach out for help with safety planning and additional referrals.
For residents already living there, the shelter has put in place social distancing guidelines, such as not having people gather in the cafeteria for meals.
Rose Brooks is providing therapy and case management services remotely to ensure those services are not interrupted, Mason said.
“Domestic violence services are still here,” he said. “We’re still here. That is definitely what we want the message to be to the community as a whole.”