Dealing with domestic violence during a pandemic
The idea behind Illinois’ stay at home order is to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus by staying in a safe place.
But for victims of domestic violence, their home may not be so safe.
Nevertheless, calls for domestic violence have actually decreased in Monroe County during the COVID-19 pandemic, but experts expect that to change.
“Right now, the numbers are down, but we’re anticipating they’re going to go up, mostly because the victims are at home with the abusers,” said Darlene Jones, executive director of the Violence Prevention Center of Southwestern Illinois. “There’s a lot of extra stress going on, not only with the virus itself but so many people have lost their jobs and the abusers tend to stress out their victims.”
Since the middle of March, when the first effects of the pandemic were felt in the United States, the Columbia Police Department has responded to three calls of domestic battery, a domestic altercation at a fast food restaurant, three calls of domestic disturbance and a violation of an order of protection.
“It’s really hard to say (if that’s more than normal,” Columbia Police Chief Jerry Paul said. “A lot of this tends to be cyclical.”
Paul did say the volume of calls was similar to the holiday season, which is a high-stress time.
In Waterloo, the Waterloo Police Department has responded to nine calls of domestic disturbance since March 1. It responded to eight such calls in January and 11 in February.
Jones, whose organization has an office in Monroe County, said more incidents of domestic violence could be occurring than are being reported to authorities.
“I would guess the reason that we would have fewer calls right now is (victims) inability to have access to contacting us,” she said. “They’re feeling a little bit trapped.”
That is exacerbated by the police and courts being less busy and therefore less likely to spot signs of abuse and refer victims to places like the Violence Prevention Center.
Similarly, with schools being closed, school personnel have fewer opportunities to spot signs of danger in the home.
Given all that, and the fact that other countries who are ahead of America in their experience of the pandemic reported increases in domestic violence, Jones said the calls will increase.
“It is expected to increase dramatically over the next few weeks,” she said. “It’s going to happen.”
With that in mind, Illinois is launching a $1.2 million plan to increase the capacity of current statewide network services for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.
It is also distributing $6 million throughout the state for agencies who help homeless people and domestic violence victims and giving the latter providers a three-month advance of their current grant.
“While most Illinoisans are adhering to the stay at home order, not everyone has a safe home to go to,” Gov. JB Pritzker said. “If you are experiencing domestic violence or live in fear of it, I know how much scarier or complicated the message of ‘stay home’ might sound.”
That $6 million is earmarked for helping agencies pay for sheltering victims in motels or hotels, which Jones said her organization and many others are doing instead of using their typical shelters.
In addition, Jones said the pandemic has made face-to-face contact with the victims almost nonexistent unless the person is seeking shelter. Other measures the violence prevention center has taken as precautions include having everyone work from home and offering only one counselor during the day.
It is still, however, offering its full range of services including legal advocacy.
“Anybody that calls in, we help them develop a safety plan whether they’re planning on leaving their home or staying in their home,” Jones explained. “We’re still providing the same services, just on a smaller scale.”
Jones emphasized that people needing help can still call her office’s 24-hour crisis hotline at 618-235-0892. Illinois’ domestic violence hotline is also still operational, offering one-stop access for shelter needs at 1-877-863-6388.
Jones said it is also important for others to be on the lookout for signs of domestic violence.
“We all should be extra aware and vigilant of possible cases of domestic violence and call the police if there are signs of abuse happening within a home,” she stressed. “We all need to look out for each other.”