When ‘stay at home’ orders aren’t safe: Domestic violence soars during pandemic
Editor's note: This story is part of a series on domestic violence. Look for our next story on how to help young adults, teens and preteens learn the warning signs and build healthy relationships next weekend.
Over the past two years we’ve been bombarded with messages — orders even — urging us to stay home and stay safe to halt the spread of COVID-19.
But for some people, staying home isn’t safe.
In Connecticut, 37.7% of women and 33.9% of men experience some sort of violence from a domestic partner in their lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. And those numbers have only climbed higher during the coronavirus pandemic.
In southeastern Connecticut, New London-based social services organization Safe Futures helped nearly 10,000 victims of domestic violence in 2021, up from a little over 7,000 the year before — an increase of 30%.
“To put it into perspective, a lot of that is exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Josh Adams, a spokesperson for Safe Futures. The agency provides a long list of services, from a 24/7 free, confidential hotline to emergency and transitional housing, to court advocacy.
Adams said pandemic-related restrictions have forced people into more dangerous domestic violence situations simply by encouraging — or even requiring — them to be in their homes for a longer part of the day. A lot of people were forced to pivot to working from home or lost their jobs entirely; others had to take a step back from social activities that got them out of the house; and schools were shuttered, forcing kids to learn virtually and limiting their exposure to teachers and other mandated abuse reporters.
“The message that was being sent was ‘stay at home, that’s the safest thing to do right now’ but that wasn’t the case for everybody,” said Christine Foster, director of crisis counseling and Camp HOPE for Safe Futures. “For some people, home is the most dangerous place you can be.”
For people looking to get out of those dangerous homes, options were more limited than ever at the start of the pandemic.
Safe Futures’ emergency shelter had to operate at a strictly limited capacity and didn’t have the option of overflowing to sister shelters across the state, Safe Futures CEO Kathie Verano said. To keep helping as many people seeking shelter as possible, the agency placed more of them in hotels, drastically raising costs of operations. From March 2020 to March 2021, the agency spent $164,000 on hotel accommodations — a 716% increase over the $16,000 it spent the year prior.
In addition to an increase in the volume of calls for help, Verano said, Safe Futures also has been seeing more intense instances of violence, leaving victims with more life-threatening injuries.
“Due to isolation, many people were losing their jobs, especially when the casinos shut down. Then everyone is together in the house and money gets tight,” she said. “When you're in a healthy relationship, those are challenging, but when you're in an abusive relationship, those things are lethal.”
In New London, there was a 21% increase in domestic violence-related calls to police in the first year of the pandemic, compared to the year before the lockdown, according to the New London Police Department.
In the past 11 months, the number of calls has started to decrease — correlating with higher vaccination rates and fewer restrictions for socializing. Still, the average number of calls is 14% higher than pre-pandemic levels.
New London police Chief Brian Wright said that any time people are cooped up inside, the number of domestic violence calls spikes. Police see similar increases in calls during bouts of extremely cold weather, when people stay inside for long periods of time, he said. But snowstorms never last for nearly two years.
In Waterford, 140 people called police for domestic violence-related issues in 2020, compared to 111 the year before, an increase of 26%. In 2021, that number rose by another 12%, according to town police Lt. Marc Balestracci.
The city of Norwich saw a similar spike in domestic violence calls.
Toward the onset of the pandemic, in the spring and summer of 2020, Ledyard Police Department saw an increase in mental health and household disturbance calls, Chief John Rich said.
The same trend has been noticed nationwide and worldwide; the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women called domestic violence “a shadow pandemic” amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to U.N. Women, abusive relationships have been worsened not only by stay-at-home orders that keep victims in close quarters with their abusers, but by causing additional financial stresses, fewer in-person social service resources and increased isolation.
According to the team at Safe Futures, the pandemic has significantly decreased opportunities for people to report abuse by reducing the time they’re outside of their home and around other people without their abuser. Children living in homes with domestic violence have fewer opportunities to talk privately with teachers, school nurses or counselors while learning from home. Social support systems have fallen apart for many with clubs, group therapies and fitness activities switching to virtual platforms.
Victims of all ages may not be visiting doctors in person for visits — if their abuser is home when they are doing a virtual appointment for physical or mental health care, they have fewer opportunities to report abuse or vocalize their fears. If their partner is also working from home, their privacy is limited more than ever.
“A victim many times has a safety plan with us,” said Verano, meaning they’re connected with Safe Futures and working on a plan to leave their abuser. These plans often include meeting with folks from the organization or chatting with them over text message. But those contacts were limited when victims were suddenly surrounded by their abusers 24/7.
“Now they’re in isolation and the abuser is home, things really start to escalate, especially if an abuser finds out that the victim is calling or texting us,” Verano said.
Around March 2020, Foster said the agency's phones nearly went silent for a brief period. “When the pandemic first happened, things got a little bit scary for a minute," she said. "Hotline calls dropped kind of quickly when the first stay-at-home orders happened.”
When the agency doesn't receive those calls, that doesn't mean domestic violence is decreasing, "it means that people aren’t reaching out," Foster said. "And that’s a scary thing.”
In response, the agency increased its outreach.
“We had to work really hard and hang up posters in doctors' offices and grocery stores and do a lot of things on social media and places where people were still going, to say, ‘Hey, we’re still here,’" Foster said.
The extra pandemic restrictions also can exacerbate the emotional toll of abuse on victims — abusers often already control their environment and demand victims turn over their phone records or constantly share their location, said Nazmie Ojeda, director of education and community engagement for Safe Futures.
“All of a sudden people were being told, ‘you can go to the grocery store, but only at this time,’ ‘you can only pick up food here,’” she said. “Those parameters were put on everybody, but imagine that on top of somebody who perhaps has to give their partner their paycheck or account for their mileage.”
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines domestic violence as “the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.”
Domestic violence doesn’t always mean physical abuse: abusers use coercion, threats and intimidation to control a partner’s actions and communication with others; use emotional abuse to put down and diminish victims' confidence and sense of self-worth; minimize their own toxic behavior, blame the victims and deny their own wrongdoings to confuse the victims and avoid responsibility; use economic abuse to limit victims' access to money; and isolate victims from friends and family.
Adams said that as the threat of domestic violence has grown even more prevalent during the pandemic, it’s important to remember that domestic violence can impact anyone, regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality or social status. “We cover a region that hits every income bracket, every demographic, every socioeconomic factor that you might think of and the issue of domestic violence runs through all of them,” he said. “I think that there’s a tendency to think that it doesn't, but it absolutely does.”
If someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, Adams said, "The biggest thing really is to speak up, offer assistance and try to be an ally."
He said there’s often a tendency to wait until something happens: until the police are called, or until a person leaves their partner, to speak up.
But sometimes, by then, it’s too late.
If you are a victim of domestic violence, help is available.
Safe Futures helps people in the towns of Bozrah, Colchester, East Lyme, Franklin, Griswold, Groton, Lebanon, Ledyard, Lisbon, Lyme, Montville, New London, North Stonington, Norwich, Old Lyme, Preston, Salem, Sprague, Sotnington, Voluntown and Waterford. To contact its free, confidential, 24/7 hotline, call (860) 701-6001. It only takes a few minutes to ask for help.
The National Domestic Violence hotline can be reached at (800) 701-6001.
If you can’t safely make a phone call, resources are also available online at thehotline.org, safefuturesct.org and ncadv.org. These websites allow you to quickly close the webpage if you’re being monitored. The Domestic Violence Hotline website also offers options for support via text message or online chats.
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