Stay Home, Stay Safe: Not Always True for Survivors of Abuse

By Liz Coleclough, PhD, LICSW, Director of Counseling and Project DVORA

What does “stay home, stay safe” mean when home is the center of violence? For so many survivors of abuse, safety means access to the outside: the workplace, the store, faith centers, family and friends, neighbors. For so many children, school offers the primary source of security, stability and exposure to healthy adults. What happens when all these sources are cut off?

As society locks down to contain the spread of COVID-19, a separate public health concern just got a lot more complicated. Domestic violence (DV) continues as a hidden pandemic, for which risk and exposure has suddenly increased inside thousands, if not millions of households.

Adults and children are now at home, in some cases 24/7, with dangerous partners and abusive parents. Unemployment has dramatically escalated, both increasing risk factors for potential lethality and cutting off financial resources for survivors. Gun sales are sky-rocketing, as people seek protection from strangers, while intensifying danger within the home itself. Many shelters are closing or limiting openings, due to infection. Courts are scrambling to reschedule hearings – impacting protection orders, family law, and DV criminal cases. Numerous safe meeting points for child custody exchanges have disappeared overnight.

There is valid concern about a nationwide spike in alcohol and drug use, exacerbating the potential intensity of violent behavior. Hospitals are overrun (or soon to be overrun) with COVID-19 cases, leaving little room for addressing the medical consequences of physical trauma.

These are just some of the likely complications within the current reality in which we are living.

As a DV advocacy team at JFS, we are actively rethinking safety planning conversations with survivors. Just a few weeks ago, our discussions included escape routes, packing an emergency bag, keeping a list of places to go, shelters to call and people to stay with. Now what? Even maintaining remote access to support, via confidential phone calls and emails, has become more challenging.

Since the start of the containment period, our DV program has noticed an uncharacteristic slowness in the pace of new inquiries – not because the need has decreased, but likely because access has. It’s the reverse effect of what happened with sexual assault (SA) hotlines during the height of #MeToo conversations. Survivors felt safe to reach out, resulting in a spike in calls. This is the opposite. A lowered state of safety can paradoxically result in silence.

While these realities are deeply concerning, there is hope in the power of creativity and human ingenuity. Across history, when the world has encountered a reality-changing event (to the degree of a world war or global pandemic), society has been forced to reconsider the status quo.

At this moment, structural considerations and solutions are emerging that previously were not up for serious consideration: dramatically expanding public health resources; rethinking our healthcare system to mobilize faster; providing direct payments to enhance financial security across the general population; meaningfully expanding unemployment insurance; relieving financial threats to stable housing; efficiently providing safe housing options for those experiencing homelessness; etc.

Many of these developments have a byproduct effect of assisting survivors. Furthermore, if we can pivot this type of revolutionary thinking to directly addressing the problem of domestic violence, perhaps there are even more creative solutions available. Encouraging examples of innovation are already tackling two problems long known to survivors, but only recently experienced across general society: isolation and the restricted ability to move freely.

To an unprecedented degree, governments, organizations, and individuals are exploring the tools and skills required to enhance digital and virtual access to services, resources, and knowledge. This could translate to expanded access for survivors. It could reduce real barriers, such as transportation, childcare, the treat of physical harassment and stalking, monitored movement, etc.

Even at an interpersonal level, a renewed interest is emerging to maintain linkages to family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, loved ones. People are collectively shifting focus to evolve the strategies through which they socially connect – regardless of physical and geographical barriers. There is new motivation to come together at a time when we are forced to be apart.

Crises have a way of amplifying and demanding attention to already existing problems. If safety equals access, but the definition of access is expanding, then maybe there are new opportunities for survivors to enhance their safety and wellbeing. Perhaps, once this is all over, we don’t need to return to the same world we accepted before: the one in which violence continues unchecked and invisible, just because it is behind closed doors.



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