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 tweens learn the warning signs and build healthy relationships next weekend.
Over the past two years, we have been bombarded with messages – even orders – urging us to stay home and stay safe to stop 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 form of violence from a domestic partner in their lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. And those numbers have only increased during the coronavirus pandemic.
In southeast Connecticut, New London-based social service organization Safe Futures helped nearly 10,000 victims of domestic violence in 2021, up from just over 7,000 the previous year, an increase by 30%.
“To put it into perspective, a lot of this is exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Safe Futures spokesperson Josh Adams. The agency provides a long list of services, from a free and confidential 24/7 helpline, to emergency and transitional housing, to advocacy in court. .
Adams said pandemic restrictions have forced people into more dangerous situations of domestic violence simply by encouraging them — or even forcing them — to stay home for longer parts of the day. Many people have been forced to switch to working from home or have lost their jobs altogether; others had to take a step back from the social activities that took them out of the house; and schools have been closed, forcing children to learn virtually and limiting their exposure to teachers and other mandated journalists.
“The message that was being sent was ‘stay home, it’s the safest thing to do right now,’ but that wasn’t the case for everyone,” said council director Christine Foster. in Crisis 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 these dangerous homes, options were more limited than ever at the start of the pandemic.
The Safe Futures emergency shelter was to operate at a strictly limited capacity and did not have the ability to spill over to sister shelters across the state, Safe Futures CEO Kathie Verano said. To continue helping as many people seeking shelter as possible, the agency placed more of them in hotels, which dramatically increased operating costs. From March 2020 to March 2021, the agency spent $164,000 on hotel accommodations, an increase of 716% from the $16,000 spent the previous year.
In addition to an increase in the volume of calls for help, Verano said, Safe Futures has also seen more intense instances of violence, leaving victims with more life-threatening injuries.
“Because of the isolation, many people were losing their jobs, especially when the casinos closed. Then everyone is together in the house and money is scarce,” she said. When you’re in a healthy relationship, it’s hard, but when you’re in an abusive relationship, those things are deadly.”
In New London, there was a 21% increase in calls to the police related to domestic violence in the first year of the pandemic, compared to the year before the lockdown, according to the New London Police Department. London.
Over the past 11 months, the number of calls has started to decline – correlating with higher vaccination rates and fewer socializing restrictions. Yet the average number of calls is 14% higher than pre-pandemic levels.
New London Police Chief Brian Wright says every time people are locked indoors the number of domestic violence calls increases. Police are seeing a similar increase in calls during bouts of extremely cold weather, when people stay indoors for long periods, he said. But snowstorms never last nearly two years.
In Waterford, 140 people called the police for concerns related to domestic violence in 2020, up from 111 the previous year, an increase of 26%. In 2021, this number has increased by another 12%, according to Lieutenant Marc Balestracci of the municipal police.
The city of Norwich has seen a similar spike in domestic violence calls.
Early in the pandemic, in the spring and summer of 2020, the Ledyard Police Department saw an increase in mental health and domestic disorder calls, Chief John Rich said.
The same trend was noticed nationally and globally; the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women has called domestic violence a “phantom pandemic” amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to UN Women, abusive relationships have been aggravated not only by stay-at-home orders that keep victims close to their abusers, but by causing additional financial strains, dwindling resources for in-person social services and increased isolation. .
According to the Safe Futures team, the pandemic has significantly reduced opportunities for people to report abuse by reducing the time spent outside their homes and around other people without their abuser. Children living in homes with domestic violence have fewer opportunities to speak privately with teachers, school nurses or counselors while learning at home. Social support systems have collapsed for many, with clubs, group therapy and fitness activities shifting to virtual platforms.
Victims of all ages may not visit doctors in person for visits – if their abuser is home when they have a virtual appointment for physical or mental health care, they have fewer opportunities to report abuse or express concerns. If their partner is also working from home, their privacy is more limited than ever.
“A victim often has a safety plan with us,” Verano said, meaning they’re connected to Safe Futures and working on a plan to leave their abuser. These plans often include meeting with people in the organization or chatting with them via text. But those contacts were limited when the victims were suddenly surrounded by their attackers 24/7.
“Now that they’re in isolation and the abuser is home, things really start to escalate, especially if an abuser finds out the victim is calling or texting us,” Verano said.
Around March 2020, Foster said the agency’s phones went nearly silent for a brief period. “When the pandemic first happened, things got a little scary for a minute,” she said. “Calls to the hotline dropped quite quickly when the first stay-at-home orders came in.”
When the agency doesn’t get those calls, it doesn’t mean domestic violence is going down, “it means people aren’t reaching out,” Foster said. “And that’s a scary thing.”
In response, the agency increased its reach.
“We had to work really hard and hang posters in doctors’ offices and grocery stores and do a lot of things on social media and places where people still went, to say, ‘Hey, we’re still here,'” Foster mentioned.
Additional pandemic restrictions may also exacerbate the emotional toll of abuse on victims — abusers often already control their surroundings and demand that 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 told, ‘you can go to the grocery store, but only then,’ ‘you can only buy food here,'” she said. declared. “These parameters have been imposed on everyone, but imagine that in addition to someone who may have to give their partner their salary or report their mileage.”
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines domestic violence as “willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault and/or other abusive behavior within a systematic pattern of power and of control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another”.
Domestic violence is not always synonymous with physical violence: abusers use coercion, threats and intimidation to control a partner’s actions and communication with others; using emotional abuse to belittle and diminish victims’ confidence and self-esteem; minimizing their own toxic behavior, blaming victims, and denying their own wrongdoing to confuse victims and avoid accountability; using economic abuse to limit victims’ access to money; and isolating victims from friends and family.
Adams said that with the threat of domestic violence having become even more prevalent during the pandemic, it’s important to remember that domestic violence can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality. or social status. “We cover a region that touches every income bracket, every demographic group, every socio-economic factor you could think of and the problem of domestic violence cuts across them all,” he said. “I think there’s a tendency to think that’s not the case, but it absolutely is.”
If someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, Adams said, “The most important thing is really to speak up, to offer help, and to try to be an ally.”
He said there is often a tendency to wait for something to happen: until the police are called, or until someone leaves their partner, to talk.
But sometimes, by then, it’s too late.