How COVID-19 is reshaping the response to domestic violence

Alisa Roth Jun 15, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace Morning Report
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way domestic violence hotlines advise those calling in. Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images

How COVID-19 is reshaping the response to domestic violence

Alisa Roth Jun 15, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way domestic violence hotlines advise those calling in. Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images

Content warning: This story discusses domestic abuse.

Resources: The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Domestic violence hotlines like the one Mary Beth Becker works for are still open during the COVID-19 pandemic. So is Women’s Advocates, the shelter in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she answers the phone.  

But she’s changed what she tells callers about staying safe. Instead of talking people through things like orders of protection and escape plans, she helps them figure out how to protect themselves at home. 

“If physical violence is going to happen,” she said she tells callers, “make sure that you are as small as possible, make sure that you’re away from an area that has weapons, knives or anything like that.”

The stay-at-home orders mean people in abusive relationships can be stuck with their abusers with little possibility of leaving. Advocacy groups like the one Becker works for are trying to help people navigate that new reality, while figuring out their own new reality of increased expenses and shrinking budgets. 

For people who do leave, though — or who have already left — the virus adds to what is a stressful situation. 

The LifeWire shelter in Bellevue, Washington, has been getting calls from people worried about money.

“A lot of what we’re seeing is just increased needs,” said Mackenzie Visser, who helps clients find — and pay for — housing. 

She said a lot of the people asking for help have been laid off or can’t work because child care has been shut down, which leaves them feeling like their only choices are to go back to an abusive partner or end up homeless. 

For Visser, it’s a matter of figuring out who she has to help and who might be able to get help elsewhere with questions like: Can this survivor receive unemployment? Are they eligible for a stimulus check? Are they undocumented and will they have a lot of barriers to accessing other community resources? Is there a language barrier?

Advocates and police departments assume there’s been more domestic violence since people are stuck at home, though there’s no way to track the numbers comprehensively. Some shelters report fewer calls, while a lot of state hotlines and police departments are getting more calls.

Meanwhile, people staying in shelters need to find ways to socially distance in places where dining rooms, playgrounds, bathrooms and, sometimes, bedrooms are typically shared spaces.  

When Estelle Brouwer, executive director of the Women’s Advocates shelter, moved half the residents to a local hotel to give residents space, the hotel was glad. “Hotels are hurting right now, and they’re not full,” she said. 

For the shelter, though, it’s an expensive solution. Even at a discounted rate, the cost of the rooms adds up, as does protective gear and hazard pay for shelter employees. Since mid-March, the organization’s costs are up $50,000 a month — 20% of its budget. It’s already anticipating serious budget shortfalls for next year. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

New COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. are on the rise. How are Americans reacting?

Johns Hopkins University reports the seven-day average of new cases hit 68,767 on Sunday  — a record — eclipsing the previous record hit in late July during the second, summer wave of infection. A funny thing is happening with consumers though: Even as COVID-19 cases rise, Americans don’t appear to be shying away from stepping indoors to shop or eat or exercise. Morning Consult asked consumers how comfortable they feel going out to eat, to the shopping mall or on a vacation. And their willingness has been rising. Surveys find consumers’ attitudes vary by age and income, and by political affiliation, said Chris Jackson, who heads up polling at Ipsos.

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

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