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Domestic Violence May Increase During COVID-19 Isolation, Experts Say

Scene from an October 25, 2015, vigil in Tempe following the death of a woman and her three children at the hands of her estranged husband.EXPAND
Scene from an October 25, 2015, vigil in Tempe following the death of a woman and her three children at the hands of her estranged husband.
Deanna Dent

As people in Arizona and tribal lands stay indoors due to COVID-19, nonprofit organization leaders are bracing for an uptick in the number of people experiencing domestic violence.

"We have concerns about domestic violence increasing with the measures that are in place, such as social isolation,” said Tasha Menaker, co-chief executive officer for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence (ACESDV), which provides assistance to victims and survivors of domestic violence throughout the state. “We’re in a time of crisis where food, finances, and basic needs are impacted — and that tends to escalate stress and the risk of violence in general.”

Menaker said its helpline has seen a sharp rise – by about 10 percent – in the number of calls it's received since social distancing practices began about two weeks ago.

Eve’s Place, which operates a helpline for victims of domestic and teen dating abuse in Maricopa County, has also been busy. Workers there have been “constantly talking” to callers, according to a helpline staffer named Jackie, who asked that her last name not be used for safety reasons.

Yet some local organizations are seeing the opposite effect.

In the last two weeks, Lori Jump, director of the StrongHearts Native Helpline for Native Americans, said it took about 40 percent fewer domestic violence calls than usual.

This is troubling, she said, because it may signal that people experiencing domestic violence are having a tougher time finding moments alone to reach out for help.

“Victims are having to isolate with their partners who might be abusive,” said Jump. “And so their ability to call out is somewhat restricted. And so that’s a little worrisome for us.”

Menaker said that despite the increase in calls to her own coalition’s helpline, many of its partner organizations throughout Arizona have also reported a drop in their average number of callers.

“I think a lot of that comes from people being afraid to access services. That is the ultimate challenge in this situation, because if your abusive partner’s in the house, how do you call?” said Menaker. “Or maybe people are just making the assumption that those services aren’t available anymore.”

As coverage of coronavirus-related shutdowns increases, advocates said they’re concerned people experiencing domestic abuse won’t know what’s still available to them.

Perhaps the most disconcerting myth? That domestic violence shelters have shut down with everything else.

“Shelters are continuing,” said Jump. “Part of the problem is that there’s been so much focus on everything that is closing — and we’re forgetting to get the message out that some services are still operational and people are still available to help.”

Menaker also said she isn’t aware of any shelters that have shut down due to COVID-19, though she noted survivors may also be avoiding them due to fear about spread of the pandemic in gatherings of people.

But there’s more to assistance than just shelters — a person can call a helpline simply to talk through their options, determine if they want to access to health care if they’ve been hurt or sexually assaulted, or discuss safety planning.

Hotlines remain active during the coronavirus pandemic; the only difference is that most of their operators are teleworking. For now, Menaker said, most have staff who can still meet in person when that's necessary and present a low public health risk.

Finding Space

For people with an abusive partner who have a hard time finding space to call, most hotlines have a text chat option, Menaker said. That might be a less-safe option for some, she acknowledged, but it could be a good alternative for others.

She added that Arizona organizations are in conversation about how they can creatively aid survivors during this time.

“I think what we as the coalition and programs probably need to do better at is really educating the community as a whole, and not just targeting survivors but friends and loved ones who a survivor might communicate with, who are in a position where they could call on behalf of that person and maybe get them resources or tips,” Menaker said.

Keeli Sorensen, vice president of victim services at Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization, said it has not yet seen any discernible change in its number of hotline visitors, but are offering recommendations for navigating social isolation.

“Many survivors of sexual or domestic violence may be concerned about being in close quarters with their abusers because of the coronavirus,” Sorensen said. “This can present a difficult situation for survivors to navigate, in addition to other current and long-term safety concerns.”

RAINN recommends making lists of supportive people to check in with, either on the phone or via video chat, and to consider inviting other safe people into the living space to act as a buffer.

“It can also be helpful to take breaks and get outside when possible, while still maintaining the social distancing recommended by public health officials,” added Sorensen. “It’s okay to explore different strategies; what works for one person might not be helpful for another.”

Is the Virus in Shelters?

For people who are concerned about the COVID-19 health risks of these shelters, experts said Arizona shelters are closely following Centers for Disease Control protocols.

“They’re taking a lot of measures to prevent the virus and control any possible spread. And they have mechanisms in place if someone’s showing flulike symptoms to help isolate,” said Menaker, adding she has places for people to isolate within the shelter. “So, no one who is ill should be 'screened out' of a shelter and program ... Programs are also working to find as many housing options as possible outside shelters in the community."

And as the national situation escalates, Jump said it will be increasingly important for state and county governments to continue to recognize people who work in domestic violence programming as “essential workers.”

“If a state does what California has done and implements shelter-in-place, who is exempt from that?” she asked. “It’s important to make sure that people who provide domestic violence and sexual assault resources are able to still do their job. These are essential positions, and they need to maintain the ability to leave their home.”

For safety reasons, hotlines traditionally do not release information of names and addresses of shelters except to victims who are calling for assistance. But they’re often the best way to get paired with resources.

“One of the things we’ll do, if someone contacts us, is we’ll call the culturally appropriate shelter or program, and kind of explain what’s going on, and then transfer the call to them,” said Jump. “So when they first connect to the person who contacted us, they have an idea of what they’re dealing with, and victims are not having to re-explain everything that they’re experiencing.”

If you’re experiencing domestic violence in Arizona or nearby tribal lands, here’s who you can contact:

National and local 24-hour hotlines that offer text or phone conversations and connect callers with local shelter providers:

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline (national, available 24 hours a day): 800-799-SAFE (7233) or 800-787-3224

  • National Sexual Assault Hotline (national, available 24 hours a day): 800-656-HOPE or 800-656-4673

  • La Frontera EMPACT 24-hour Crisis Hotline (Arizona, available 24 hours a day): 480-784-1500

  • A New Leaf Crisis Helpline (in Maricopa County, available 24 hours a day): 480-890-3039 or 844-SAFEDVS

    Note: If you live in Maricopa County and you're seeking a shelter, contact this line.
    If you live in Maricopa County and are looking for other services (general advocacy, help with custody or orders of protection — anything other than shelter) you can contact ACESDV or programs directly.

    Local hotlines with limited hours that offer regionally and-culturally specific text or phone counseling and connect callers with local shelter providers:

  • ACESDV Sexual and Domestic Violence Services Helpline (Arizona, Spanish and English staffers available 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Arizona time Monday through Friday): 602-279-2900 or 800-782-6400, or online chat at acesdv.org/helpline

  • StrongHearts Native Helpline (for culturally appropriate Native counseling and shelters, available from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. MST daily): 844-7NATIVE or 844-762-8483

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