COVID-19: Pandemic’s Impact on Domestic Violence is Difficult to Discern

The shutdown and social distancing are preventing accurate tracing of domestic abuse cases in Philadelphia, but service providers continue to reach out to survivors.

A mural titled "Settlement House Roots" displayed upon the entrance of the Lutheran Settlement House, located on Frankford Ave., Philadelphia. (Mural by Michael Reali/Eric Okdeh, Photo by Michael Reali)

Since early March, Philadelphians have had to adapt to social-distancing, self-isolation, and working from home. While staying indoors may help protect citizens from COVID-19, it also leaves victims of domestic abuse even more vulnerable and invisible, especially if they live with their abusers and are forced to face them around the clock.

In 2018, 27 deaths were linked to domestic violence in Philadelphia County. Additionally, the Philadelphia Police Department receives on average 100,000 calls pertaining to domestic abuse each year. Although these numbers are troubling enough on their own, hundreds of thousands of cases go unreported each year in the U.S.

According to internal reports from Philadelphia’s Domestic Violence Hotline, between April and June of this year, over 2,000 calls were made pertaining to situations involving domestic abuse. Additionally, almost half of those calls were made by first-time callers during regular business hours, a time when many would normally be at work if it weren’t for the pandemic.

With a majority of Philadelphians confined to their homes, one might assume these numbers would represent an increase in reports of domestic abuse since mid-March. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Kris Moore, a hotline counselor for Women in Transition, said that overall, it hasn’t seen a significant change in the amount of calls they receive during the pandemic. Instead, the content of the calls has changed.

“Usually people wait until the partner goes to work, but folks are having to call with abusers in the home,” Moore said.

Based on the hotline’s reports from past years, Moore’s own experience at work doesn’t seem to be an isolated one. Since 2018, reports of various domestic offenses have largely remained stagnant in numbers, showing little change since the pandemic began, according to call volume numbers from Philadelphia’s Domestic Violence Hotline.

Noel Hopson, a clinical and outreach coordinator at Menergy, an organization that intervenes with abusers and works with them to develop non-abusive behaviors, said that although she speculates there has been an increase in domestic abuse due to COVID-19, she hasn’t noticed any changes within Menergy that would reflect that suspected increase.

“In terms of the number of referrals we’ve been receiving, it’s stayed relatively the same,” Hopson said.

Hopson, like other providers, wonders if abuse survivors have fewer opportunities to report.

“I do think that might be connected to concerns within the specific households and not feeling safe,” she said.

Because Menergy operates on a referral-based program for abusers, social-distancing may mean harmful situations will largely go unnoticed by the third parties who would usually initiate a referral.

“A lot of the people we work with are having someone requesting that they receive our services,” Hopson said. “Whether it’s court, parole, family members, or community leaders, someone is referring these clients to us.”

COVID-19 is a background issue in many of the calls providers receive. Whether it’s victims calling during crisis situations or feeling like they can’t escape their abusers due to unemployment and financial struggles, Moore said the pandemic is leaving victims with few options when it comes to seeking help.

“In the last month or two, I’ve had a lot of calls from hospitals with people going to the hospitals with COVID-related symptoms and then talking to the social workers about the abuse that they’re dealing with once they get there,” Moore said.

Marcella Nyachogo, assistant director of the bilingual domestic violence program at the Lutheran Settlement House, said the financial impacts of quarantine have made situations more difficult for clients. Navigating an abusive relationship while also managing family responsibilities and strained household budgets can leave a survivor with few opportunities to seek help, she said.

“Many survivors are facing the increased stress of having the whole family home during this time,” Nyachogo said.

Many organizations have shifted operations to accommodate social distancing guidelines. Women in Transition has tried to balance preventing the further spreading of COVID-19, while also providing the same level of support to its clients. For instance, most counseling sessions have moved online.

“In terms of counseling, it’s actually been extremely active,” Moore said. “Folks who haven’t been to counseling for months are coming back.”

Aside from counseling, Women in Transition also offers peer support groups, self-defense training, and substance abuse intervention to help confront the issue from multiple angles.

“Everybody has shifted to either doing it over the phone or through Zoom, but they are starting to get close to capacity,” Moore said.

Hopson said using digital tools has made Menergy more accessible to clients.

“Since we have virtual services, financial struggles surrounding transportation is no longer a barrier to those seeking treatment,” Hopson said. “You don’t really have to coordinate as tightly within scheduling constraints.”

But, digital technologies require access to the internet and a computer or smartphone, and navigating teleconferencing tools is difficult for some clients.

“Technology literacy is something we worry about, as all our services are remote currently,” Nyachogo said. “But we talk through with all of our clients and offer them lots of options.”

Although some of the resources for domestic abuse victims have changed, local shelters provided by Women Against Abuse have continued to provide a safe haven for victims during the pandemic. There are five shelters located throughout the city that house domestic abuse survivors and connect them to other resources.

Similar to the other shelters, COVID-19 has only meant an increased need for housing at the Lutheran Settlement House.

“Our housing programming has been nonstop since the quarantine, because many people are in need of financial support,” Nyachogo said.

Moore said that, fortunately, shelters across the city have had regular turnover rates, allowing open spaces for anyone who meets the criteria.

It can be difficult for service providers to see what lies beyond the pandemic. However, Nyachogo said her organization is anticipating and preparing for a high volume of survivors seeking support once things begin to open back up and restrictions are eased.

Until restrictions are lifted in Philadelphia and more employment opportunities are available for survivors, COVID-19’s full impact on domestic violence most likely won’t be understood for several months, Moore said.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, please call the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-866-723-3014.

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