COVID-19 and domestic violence

Public Health Essentials! A blog by the Snohomish Health District.

By Kari Bray / Snohomish Health District

The pandemic of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has amplified existing challenges in our community. Where there were cracks before, they’ve gotten wider, and people who were struggling to climb out are facing more obstacles. Many in Snohomish County are dealing with illness, loss, disconnects from social circles and supports, and/or economic hardship.

Domestic violence is one of the issues that is exacerbated during this crisis. This can include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse of children and adults.

The reality is that we won’t have a full understanding of just how much of an impact this pandemic has had on those experiencing domestic violence for many months or, more likely, years.

But to get a better understanding of what we are seeing now, what resources are available in our community, and how people can help, we reached out to some local experts. We spoke with Lori Vanderburg and Anne Ewalt with Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center, Melissa Mertz with Providence Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse, and Vicci Hilty with Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County.

What do we know about the impact of the pandemic so far?

When health orders designed to reduce the spread of illness first went into effect, namely the order to stay home except for essential business or errands, there was an initial decrease in calls for services and support related to domestic violence.

“When people are living with an abuser in a lockdown situation, they can’t call,” Hilty said. “Domestic violence really leaves a trail of emotional pain. And when we say things like ‘stay home, stay safe,’ for some people, that’s not an option. For them, it’s stay home and try to survive.”

A few weeks later, the call volumes began to look more normal. For the last couple of weeks, calls to multiple lines have increased significantly. Questions are coming in to Domestic Violence Services about protection orders, how to navigate the legal system, and what to expect when leaving a violent situation.

Other people are struggling because they left an abusive relationship before the pandemic but now the person they left is contacting them during a vulnerable time, promising that things have changed and talking about financial support when, for many, finances are a serious concern.

“It’s hard to stay strong right now,” Hilty said.

There also likely has been fear of going in for medical care and getting exposed to COVID-19, so people may have hesitated to go in for an evaluation if they were assaulted, Mertz said. Hospitals and clinics are safe, and people should not be afraid to seek care.

“This was a problem before COVID,” she said. “It’s a new problem in the time of COVID.”

For children and teens, closures of schools and activities seem to have decreased reports during what is normally one of the busiest times of the year. Young people don’t have the same access to teachers, coaches, advisors, or other trusted adults they can confide in, and those adults (including a number of mandatory reporters) aren’t seeing children in person to notice signs of neglect or abuse and report it.

Usually, May is a busy month for reports to and referrals from Child Protective Services. That doesn’t appear to be the case this year, Vanderburg and Ewalt said.

There is good news about existing supports. Children and adults up to age 22 who were already part of programs or therapy have transitioned well to virtual or tele-health options, they said.

Aside from unscheduled in-person visits, support services are active. People can call or message. There are hotlines and texting options. Visits can be scheduled for those who need interpreters or who are too young to effectively engage with someone on a screen.

Overall, people are reaching out more for services as time goes on and health measures are modified or lifted.

It will be quite some time before there’s a clear picture of how dramatic an impact this pandemic has had on domestic violence. Particularly with children, it may be years before they feel they are in a safe place to tell someone what they experienced, if they ever feel they can do so. Issues like sexual abuse remain taboo subjects for many, and the shame and fear associated with reporting can be overwhelming. There’s work to be done there to reduce shame and stigma so people feel safe in reporting violence.

But when people are ready to talk, when they want to ask for help, the resounding message from the experts was this: “We are here.”

How can I get help?

For people who are experiencing violence, safety planning and self-care are both extremely important.

Self-care means doing what you can to alleviate stress for you and your family. What works well for one person may not work for another. Find the things that help you manage your stress in healthy ways. Focus on what is in your control. Find safe, quiet spaces when and where you can. Look for virtual ways to connect with your social and support networks. Consider contacting the advocacy line or crisis chat if you need someone to talk to.

Safety planning includes knowing the resources that are available and where you would go or who you would trust in a personal crisis, such as escalating violence in the household.

You can call Domestic Violence Services or Providence Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse to talk with someone who can help walk you through safety planning. You can call anytime, day or night. Calls are free and confidential.

• Providence Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse: 425-252-4800

Domestic Violence Services: 425-25-ABUSE (425-252-2873)

No one can tell you what to do, and the people on the other end of the line are there to help, not to order. You know your situation best, and the goal is to help you make the best and safest decisions for you.

If you are in an emergency situation, you can text 911 if you are worried about being overheard on the phone.

Other resources:

National Crisis Text Line: 741741

National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.

Care Crisis Line: 800-584-3578 or 425-258-4357

Care Crisis Chat: www.imhurting.org

Disaster Distress Helpline: Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746.

The Disaster Distress Helpline provides crisis counseling and support for anyone in the U.S. experiencing distress or other behavioral health concerns related to any natural or human-caused disaster, including public health emergencies.

Dial 2-1-1: If you need assistance finding food, paying for housing bills, accessing free childcare, or other essential services, visit 211.org or dial 211 to speak to someone who can help.

How can I help someone in my life who may be experiencing domestic violence?

Everybody has a role in reducing violence.

Adults who usually make the call about a child who may be in danger are not interacting as directly with children. Other adults can step up. Friends, family or neighbors should call Child Protective Services if they believe a child is being abused. The statewide End Harm line is 866-363-4276, and the number for the region that includes Snohomish County is 866-829-2153. Making the call doesn’t automatically get someone in trouble or divide a family, said Vanderburg and Ewalt. It notifies someone who can look into the situation. Anonymous reports are allowed.

People can also contact Dawson Place at 425-789-3000. They have resources and support for child victims of physical or sexual abuse, and for their families.

It can be challenging to help an adult in your life who is in a dangerous situation. You cannot force anyone to leave, nor should you.

Safely getting out of a domestic violence situation can look very different for different people. It’s easy for well-meaning friends or family to say “Why don’t you just leave?” without understanding the complexities.

Violence tends to spike when someone tries to leave. The economic challenges and the fact that safe spaces may be limited during a pandemic create new hardships for those who want to leave.

If you are concerned about a friend or family member who may be experiencing domestic violence:

Talk to them. More importantly, listen to them. Call, video chat, or text. Use the mode of communication they are most comfortable with, and let them know that you are there to support them.

Don’t judge. Don’t blame or pressure. Trust them to know their situation best, and be there to support them as they navigate the difficult personal choice of whether and when to leave.

Know the resources. Have them available for the person you are talking to, and for yourself. Anyone can call the hotlines. If you are worried about someone you care about, call and have an expert talk you through things.

Speak up for children. If you are concerned about the safety of a child, you can contact Dawson Place at 425-789-3000 or call Child Protective Services at the statewide End Harm line (866-363-4276).

Be open about your own experiences, if you are in a place to do so. Talking about subjects that have been taboo, like child sexual assault, can help take away the shame and make others feel safer and less alone in reporting abuse. Investigations are more effective when people feel they can speak honestly and without fear of judgment.

Approach every conversation with the mindset of “What do you need? How can I help?” rather than “Here is what you should do.”

The experts we talked to agreed that it’s important for people to remember that not everyone is in a safe situation right now. Awareness of what others may be going through and a willingness to listen and support are crucial all the time, but especially during this crisis.

“In this time when people are focused on their physical safety and health, it’s important to talk about this, too,” Ewalt said.

Reminder: There are people ready to help, for those who are experiencing domestic violence and for those who are worried about someone else.

• Providence Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse: 425-252-4800 (24/7)

• Domestic Violence Services: 425-25-ABUSE, 425-252-2873 (24/7)

• Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center: 425-789-3000 (M-F, 8-4:30)

The Public Health Essentials! blog highlights the work of the Snohomish Health District and shares health-related information and tips.

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