Handling Domestic Violence During a Pandemic

Shelters adjust, with the help of donors

No social sphere is untouched by the coronavirus pandemic. Charities that cope with domestic abuse, however, face some special challenges.

It seems intuitive that the stresses of a lockdown could be an impetus to household conflict, though evidence of any change in violence has so far not emerged. At the SafeHouse Center in Ann Arbor, director Barbara Niess-May reports, “We did see a spike in calls within the first few days, survivors wanting to do safety planning.” Then calls dropped off. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that its number of contacts has remained steady over the past month, hovering around 1,800 to 2,000 calls per day.

Hotline CEO Katie Ray-Jones expresses concern, though, that vulnerable persons may find that “an abusive partner is leveraging COVID-19 to further isolate, coerce, or increase fear in the relationship.” Alejandra Castillo, national CEO of the YWCA (the largest provider of domestic violence services in the U.S.) believes the general pattern is that, “When society is under serious pressure, you see domestic violence go up.” Registering complaints may be harder while the abuser remains in the house. Perhaps, suggests Jessi Luepnitz of the Rock County, Wisconsin, YWCA shelter, when today’s stay-at-home orders are lifted, “that’s when people are going to be able to reach out.”

In cases where domestic abuse does take place, sheltering at home is not tenable, yet pulling victims into shelters where they will mix in groups is also problematic. This is requiring creative responses. One YWCA branch in Nashville has been putting victims up in RVs for two weeks before they enter their group facility. The 33-bed shelter run by the Rock County YWCA is still accepting clients, but first putting them up in hotels for two weeks of quarantine. Once in the group home, both clients and employees are required to wash themselves and change their clothes every time they re-enter from outside. Nationally, the Y is also partnering with a video-conferencing company to provide online counseling to people in need. 

“We’re still an essential service, so our shelter is open,” says Aimee Nimeh, president of the Detroit-area shelter Haven. Assistance that can be delivered by computer or phone has been shifted over. At the shelter proper, “It looks a little bit different, the services we’re providing, but we’re still providing them.” 

“We’re not front-liners like the medical community,” says the Y’s Castillo, “but we are front-liners for the social fabric.” Agreeing that charities like the YWCA will be important in helping families adapt and heal, during the coronavirus disruption as well as after, long-time donor Beth McCaw recently decided to expedite a gift that she and her husband had pledged to the Y. Instead of delivering $300,000 over three years as originally promised, the Bernier McCaw Foundation sent it all immediately, just as the pandemic hit. “The storm is here,” noted McCaw.

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