By Monte Jewell, Project DVORA, Jewish Family Service
Once the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality, domestic violence worldwide worsened—and became tougher to detect. Police calls went up while calls to community hotlines fell. The public health response to the pandemic added new domestic violence risk factors through stay-at-home orders, increased gun sales, and sky-rocketing unemployment claims. It may be dangerous to try calling a hotline without being overheard or browsing the internet through a household router or phone.
Even before this virus, most people at risk of domestic violence reached out to friends and family before contacting advocates. Faith communities can be precious sources of sanctuary, safety, and friendship. As our communities adapt to the pandemic, and we come into contact with one another more rarely, someone may reach out to you for help. It’s worth considering how to safely respond, and the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) offers some ideas. Below are additional actions you can take:
* Practice listening without judgment.
Listening without judgment can help offset social isolation, which can be painful and is also associated with an increased risk of violence. We know that listening without judgment can be tougher than it sounds. Try open-ended questions like, “How’s it going?”, “What do you need?”, or, “How are you feeling?” If the person responds tersely or seems uncomfortable, give them space. If they share, try to let them know that you heard them without concluding what they should or should not do. Try responses like, “I’m glad you told me,” “Thank you for sharing,” or, “It’s not your fault.”
* Work to stay connected.
Nurturing safe contacts and steady connections can make a situation safer. That’s another reason to avoid pushing a person to action, even if you think they or children in the household are in danger. Remember that the person has been surviving so far, and that it’s a common mistake to presume that someone is in danger because of their own “poor decisions” or because they failed to “just leave” an abusive partner. Leaving an abusive relationship is statistically linked to increased risk of domestic assault and homicide. Trusting the person who confided in you to plan and make their own decisions can be critically important for their safety. Remember that digital channels of communication, like cell phones, laptops, and home routers, may be subject to logging, stalkerware, GPS-tracking, compromised passwords or other risks of detection. It’s worth thinking about how to communicate safely and privately with digital tools by consulting resources like the Tools for Survivors, Friends and Family page at the Tech Safety website.
* It’s okay to express concern.
Honoring the decisions of a person who has chosen to confide in you about a potentially dangerous situation doesn’t mean you can’t speak honestly and realistically to them about concerns. Doing so may help them understand that you do not agree that their situation is normal. If you learn about a firearm in the household, prior criminal convictions, incidents of strangulation or other physical violence, threats of suicide, or other details, it’s normal to feel afraid. The situation is dangerous. It’s okay to say, “I’m really scared for you,” or, “I don’t think it’s normal that you were threatened,” or, “That doesn’t sound safe to me.” If you feel personally overwhelmed, it’s also okay to take some time while letting the person know that you are glad they are talking to you and that you would like to check in again later.
* It’s okay to ask for help.
If you have been contacted by someone who might be in danger, they may ask you for help. There are ways of helping which can make the situation safer. It’s also possible to make the situation less safe. It’s okay for you to reach out for guidance without revealing the identity of the person in danger. In general, it is safer to reach out to a community-based organization with your questions. It’s safer because advocates in those organizations have experience supporting people in danger to reduce risk and increase protections against violence. Unlike law enforcement or victim witness assistants who work with or for law enforcement, advocates who work for community organizations often have legal protection against forced disclosure of violence or the risk of violence against adults.
* Consider contacting Project DVORA.
A person who has asked you for help may not feel ready to call the police or make a big change in their situation without having a better idea of how to stay safe. At Project DVORA, they have the option to contact us confidentially. We may offer them a safe way to communicate with us. We can listen, and we will not try to force them to make a police report or do something that is unsafe. We may be able to offer them legal help, counseling, financial assistance, or help them find other resources. They are not obligated to follow our advice, and they can contact us as many times as they want.
But you can also contact Project DVORA if you have questions about gender-based violence or ways to help someone during the pandemic. You do not have to be helping someone at the moment to ask us questions. You can ask if you are interested in preparing for a future situation. We can provide information and support to you or your organization so that you feel more prepared to offer help if needed. We can help faith communities, workplaces, or other organizations to consider how to choose policies that help prevent or reduce the risk of harm from violence or abuse.
Monte Jewell manages the legal program for Project DVORA at Jewish Family Service. He has worked in King County for the Sexual Violence Law Center and the Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence. Monte’s domestic relations legal practice has been limited to representation of survivors of gender-based violence for 23 years, and he is a member of the Committee on Professional Ethics of the State Bar of Washington and the State Bar of Montana Ethics Committee.