In the shadows

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Pandemic-induced economic woes, social isolation and an uptick in alcohol or substance abuse have led to a surge in domestic violence, experts say. Simultaneously, the coronavirus outbreak has cut off survivors from many resources they could use to escape abuse.

“Overall, we have had a 41 percent increase in our hotline calls since April,” says Meagan de Chateauvieux, president and CEO of the Willow Domestic Violence Center, which provides essential services for those who are being subjected to domestic violence. 

Calls to the Willow Center’s 24/7 hotline rose from 640 in May to 884 in July, a 38 percent increase. On one day in August, 45 calls came in—more than twice the normal daily average.

“Forty-five calls in a day is pretty much unheard of,” de Chateuvieux says.

Before the pandemic arrived in Monroe County, about half of the calls to the Willow Center were from survivors who were concerned about their situations, but not desperate to leave them. That’s changed.

“The types of calls that we are currently getting to the hotline are at a danger level that is actually quite alarming,” de Chateauvieux says. “It seems like almost every call is someone’s just like ‘I need to leave right now.’” 

In addition, fear of contracting the coronavirus has left many survivors isolated, and less able to reach out for assistance. 

“The ability to access support and resources, knowing how to reach out and get help, having positive input from other people that remind you of your self-worth and your value—all of those things are harder at this moment,” says Ellen Poleshuck, director of the Healing through Education Advocacy and Law Collaborative, a University of Rochester Medical Center program that provides psychotherapy and other assistance for interpersonal violence survivors.

Exercising control

In a nutshell, domestic violence, sometimes called interpersonal violence, is about control. One adult partner in an intimate relationship, called the “abuser,” engages in a pattern of behavior that is intended to force the other partner, called the “survivor,” to do his or her bidding. 

Meagan de Chateauvieux

Abusers use various tools against survivors, including name-calling, physical or sexual assaults, and control of the individual’s or family’s finances. Depending on the circumstances, these measures might be put to use in person, via the phone or over the internet.

“Each situation is unique,” de Chateauvieux says. “It’s about the attempt to manipulate.”

Whatever form it takes, domestic violence is widespread. U.S. women over the age of 18 are subjected to at least 5 million acts of domestic violence annually, 3 million of which involve men. One in four U.S. women and one in 10 men have been subjected to physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. 

In April, the Journal of Emergency Medicine reported “alarming trends” in domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. Initial data at the time offered early insight—in Portland, the Police Bureau recorded a 22 percent increase in arrests related to domestic violence. The San Antonio Police Department in Texas noted an 18 percent increase in domestic violence calls while the sheriff’s office in Jefferson County, Ala., saw a 27 percent jump in calls. In March, the New York City Police Department responded to a 10 percent increase in domestic violence reports. 

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office classifies domestic violence incidents under the broader “family trouble” category. From March 11 through Aug. 31, deputies responded to 1,454 reports of family trouble, roughly a 4 percent decrease from the same period last year. 

While women are generally subjected to domestic violence more frequently than men, abusers and survivors need not fill traditional gender roles. The prevalence of interpersonal violence among those who self-identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual equals or is higher than that found amongst heterosexuals. Altogether, domestic violence claims the lives of over 1,500 people in the U.S. each year.

A number of personal characteristics can leave individuals more willing to abuse or attack their intimate partners, including low self-esteem, feelings of inferiority and difficulty controlling anger. Growing up in a family or a culture where coercion or violence are accepted means of controlling intimate partners also sets the stage for abuse. Existing personality or psychological disorders can render people more willing to abuse those around them, as can the use of alcohol or drugs. 

Maisha Beard-Johnson

Maisha Beard-Johnson believes that her father sought to control her mother out of a fear of losing her.

“My father wouldn’t even allow my mother to wear makeup on her own wedding day,” says Beard-Johnson, a speechwriter in the city of Rochester Bureau of Communications. “He was very insecure.”

That insecurity helped lead James Beard to physically and mentally abuse his wife, and mentally abuse his daughter. His use of alcohol and crack cocaine made it worse.

“I would fight my father to protect my mother as a kid,” Beard-Johnson says. 

Abuse within a pandemic

Several of the conditions that can lead to abuse have grown more widespread in the U.S. since the pandemic hit. Twelve percent of the U.S. adults surveyed in mid-July reported consuming more alcohol or substances because of pandemic-induced worry and stress, and 18 percent had difficulty controlling their tempers. Altogether, 53 percent of respondents indicated that pandemic-induced stress and worry had negatively impacted their mental health. In contrast, only 32 percent of those surveyed reported feeling those effects in March. 

“The pandemic has exacerbated a lot of the risk factors that increase the likelihood of somebody engaging in behaviors that represent IPV,” HEAL’s Poleshuck says.

The telecounselors at 211-LifeLine, who help callers connect with sources of emergency food, shelter, crisis counseling and other assistance, have witnessed the effects of social isolation. From March to August last year, the program received 18,260 calls, 187 of which involved domestic violence. It received 52,912 calls during the same period this year, but only 93 of them involved domestic violence. 

Merva Alicea, who supervises the program, says the living conditions that the pandemic has forced on survivors might be denying them access to help.

Merva Alicea

“Typically, when I talk to someone in a domestic violence situation, they’re calling when they’re on a break at work, or they’re calling when their abuser is asleep or when their kids are at school,” she says. “Maybe their partner, maybe their children being home … was preventing the victims of domestic violence from calling us because of lack of privacy.”

Mary DeLella, senior victim witness advocate for the Sheriff’s Office, says that many of the survivors she’s spoken to have been more reluctant to report being abused than they might have been before.

“The one commonality that we’re hearing is they tolerate it more than they would have prior to the pandemic,” she says. “The incident was becoming more elevated, more physical before they were actually calling 911.”

Pandemic-driven isolation also plays right into the hands of abusers.

“One of the primary tactics of an abuser is to isolate the survivor,” de Chateauvieux says. “When you’re cut off from your friends, from your family, from your workplace, from your support networks, that is the place where the abuse can become really dangerous.” 

Pivoting to help

In addition to directly affecting the lives of domestic violence survivors, the pandemic has prompted the organizations that serve them to change their operations. HEAL still offers trauma-focused psychotherapy, help with creating safety plans and obtaining orders of protection, and other forms of assistance to its clients, but fewer of them are seen face-to-face.

Ellen Poleshuck

“We very quickly pivoted to being able to provide all of our services remotely, as well as in person,” Poleshuck says. 

Many of HEAL’s patients now prefer to interact with their therapists by telephone or in telehealth sessions, thereby reducing the chance of contracting the virus. Measures have been instituted to minimize the risk that they’ll suffer abuse at home for contacting the program.

“There are safety issues with conducting IPV care remotely, given the increased challenges with privacy,” Poleshuck says.

The Willow Center has continued to provide a full range of important services for those being subjected to domestic violence, but the pandemic has forced the organization to alter its in-house operations.

“It has been a massive disruption to the way that we do business,” de Chateauvieux says.

The nonprofit, which has 49 beds at its Rochester facility, now makes only 45 available in order to limit contact among survivors and their families. All who stay there are asked to remain in their rooms most of the time, and everyone over the age of two must wear a mask when in common areas. The playroom is usually closed.

“We allow one family in at a time, and then we clean and sanitize it in between family groups,” de Chateauvieux says.

Staff members prepare and deliver meals, which the clients and their families eat in their rooms. 

Clients can stay at Willow’s facility for as much as 90 days. Upon leaving the shelter, they might move to one of the nonprofit’s 10 supportive apartments or find another safe place to live in the community. Survivors who are homeless can turn to Tapestry, a partnership of the YWCA of Rochester & Monroe County, the Willow Center and the Legal Aid Society of Rochester.

“We work with them to help them find housing wherever it is safe for them,” says Alicia Gayden, rapid rehousing supervisor for the YWCA, which runs the Tapestry program.

In addition to helping a survivor or a survivor and family find a safe place to stay, Tapestry provides the support services they need to stay there for as much as a year.

Alicia Gayden

“We visit with them … sometimes twice a month to help them get employed, educational training, day care in place for their children, and help them get acclimated, and make sure there’s a safety plan in place,” Gayden says.

Coronavirus has also left its mark on Tapestry’s operations. Landlords became reluctant to take on new renters after the pandemic appeared in the area.

“In January, we were able to view at least 10 to 15 units a week,” Gayden says. “In March, that went down to zero for the whole month.”

Tapestry’s clients can now check out as many as four apartments a week, usually via their cell phones or over the internet, but difficulties in securing mattresses and appliances have further hindered the placement process. Those who once found new living quarters in 30 days might now have to wait as long as 90 days.

Beard-Johnson found a path forward from the abuse she’d suffered at home when she was 15, and her father decided to get clean and sober. Her parents divorced about a year later, and James Beard ceased abusing those in his family. He then took Beard-Johnson and her two siblings in to raise on his own. 

“After my father got clean and made amends, I was then able to begin the healing process,” she says.

James Beard went on to acquire a doctoral degree, and now works with domestic violence offenders in California.

In addition to her City Hall job, Beard-Johnson is a mother of four and an author who has written about domestic violence. Though she speaks of her accomplishments with a touch of pride, Beard-Johnson still carries scars from the past.

“If a man yells at me or if a man raises his voice, I immediately go into fight-or-flight,” Beard-Johnson says.

She has one basic piece of advice for survivors: don’t try to go it alone.

“Reach out and tell someone, even though you’re afraid, to get the help that you need.”

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. All coronavirus articles are collected here.

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