When stringent social distancing measures went into place to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in mid-March, the calls began. These weren’t calls to doctors from people concerned about symptoms, or to unemployment officers from people without work — though those calls started, too.
Instead, they were calls to domestic violence hotlines, from abuse survivors who suddenly found themselves in a bind. With a pandemic raging, going out isn’t necessarily safe. But for the nearly 10 million Americans affected by domestic violence every year, staying home isn’t safe, either. What’s more, social distancing, and the resulting stress and isolation, dramatically exacerbate survivors’ risk of abuse.
“We know survivors are spending more time in closer proximity to their abusers,” said Katie Ray-Jones, Chief Executive Officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. This proximity, in addition to the crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic has created for social service agencies that typically handle crisis intervention, poses a heightened risk for victims of domestic abuse.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of survivors reaching out who [are] concerned with COVID-19 and how their abusive partner is leveraging COVID-19 to further isolate, coerce, or increase fear in the relationship,” said Ray-Jones.
Social Distancing is Challenging for Survivors
If you’re in an abusive relationship, or you love someone who is, it’s totally understandable to feel overwhelmed or scared. It can be particularly daunting to know that the support networks you may rely on during normal times — such as going to a friend’s house or even going to the doctor for help with injuries — may be more difficult to access now.
But you are not alone. Even while socially distanced, your loved ones can continue to offer you support, and survivor advocates are available to help you plan for your own safety during this time. Most importantly, you are, as always, your own best resource. You can continue to support and care for yourself and your children, if you have them, and to keep yourself safe.
Know the Signs
Both poverty and stress have been shown to increase the likelihood of domestic violence perpetration. With nerves frayed and unemployment soaring, this can be an especially toxic combination for anyone who shares a home with an abuser.
“Our experience informs us that in homes where abuse is already occurring, and there is a negative financial impact or added stress in the home, we typically see a higher frequency of incidents of abuse and increased severity of abuse,” said Ray-Jones.
Because of this increased risk, it can be helpful to know the signs that violence might be escalating — or that your partner is specifically using COVID-19 as a tool of intimidation or control.
- Your abusive partner may react to stress with increased violence. Stress doesn’t cause abuse — people choose to abuse — but it does increase the likelihood that someone will use violence or controlling tactics. Your partner may react to the stress of the pandemic with increased violence, aggression, or suspicion.
- Your abusive partner may use social distancing as an excuse to further isolate you from your family and friends. Abusive partners frequently isolate their victims from family, friends, and support networks in order to more effectively assert control over their life. The call for social distancing to help stop the spread of COVID-19 can exacerbate the isolation many survivors already face. Abusers can also intentionally use social distancing to keep their victims away from their family, friends, and children.
- Your abusive partner may attempt to limit you or your children’s access to medical care. They may provide misinformation about COVID-19 or withhold important medical information, like your insurance card, in an attempt to harm or frighten you.
- Your abusive partner may threaten to kick you out of housing. Social distancing means less access to public transportation, community spaces, and other safe spaces survivors may turn to for support. Because of the particular risk that COVID-19 poses to people in shelters and other close quarters, it may also be more difficult to access shelter resources.
As survivors, we are the people most able to evaluate our own risk level. Because we have to monitor our abusers to keep ourselves safe, over time we often develop a very keen intuition about their behavior and about our own safety. So if you sense that violence is escalating, trust your gut, and do what you need to protect yourself.
Make a Safety Plan
Safety planning is an important way for survivors to consider their risks, tap into their support networks, and devise a strategy for when and how to seek help if needed. Social distancing and the economic and public effects of COVID-19 may require you to make some changes to your safety plan. “Our advocates are providing critical safety planning and resources for instances such as this,” said Ray-Jones.
When making your safety plan, especially in light of the new uncertainty for most of our daily lives, consider the following.
Change your exit plan to account for shelter-in-place requirements
Different states and localities currently have different public health advice around public movement, gatherings, and the availability of services, so ensure you know what is happening in your area. You can also talk to a survivor advocate to understand what resources might still be available.
Consider your short- to medium-term finances
The COVID-19 pandemic has already had dramatic economic effects, with 3.3 million Americans filing for unemployment as of March 26. Domestic and sexual violence have a severe economic effect on survivors, and can trap survivors in cycles of poverty. Financial empowerment is an important part of overall empowerment, and it’s especially important during an economic downturn.
Take stock of the financial resources you have independent access to, in case you need to leave home or independently provide for yourself or your children, if you have them. Additionally, survivor advocates can help you connect to financial empowerment resources to help, for example, file for unemployment.
Account for a possible lack of emergency response
With 911 systems in hard-hit cities, particularly New York, inundated with calls, it may be more difficult to obtain police or ambulance services in case of emergency. Talk to a survivor advocate today to make a plan in case needed services are not available. “The Hotline can help support victims and survivors and strategize ways they can stay safe in their unique situation,” says Ray-Jones. “We can determine which resources are available now.”
Recognize when it may be time to leave
Even during a “shelter in place” situation, your safety always comes first. While you may feel apprehensive about entering public space due to the public health crisis, you are the best expert at assessing when it might be necessary to leave your home for your own safety. Even during a shelter-in-place situation, escaping an abuser is certainly considered “essential” travel. In your safety plan, identify and arrange for situations in which you may have to leave your home and identify alternate places to stay, like a friend’s house or your vehicle.
Reach Out to Loved Ones
If you’re in an abusive relationship, one of your most powerful resources is your network of family and friends. It’s always your choice who you wish to talk to about what you’re experiencing, and you should trust your gut about who will be supportive and who may not be available to give you the help you need. But since one tactic of abuse is to isolate victims from their loved ones, maintaining strong relationships, even remotely, can be a powerful tool to keep you safe.
Map your network
Many people are coming together during the pandemic to form mutual aid networks to support one another with resources and services like childcare. Part of mutual aid is mapping social networks — basically, making a list or diagram of people in your community who can be in solidarity with one another. It can be useful for people experiencing abuse to make a similar personal inventory of what kinds of support they might have access to.
Make a list of the people you feel comfortable reaching out to, and the resources — financial, emotional, and for help with things like childcare —they may have access to. If you’re afraid of your partner seeing this list, erase it afterwards or do this as a mental exercise instead of writing it down.
Plan regular phone or video chat check-ins with trusted loved ones. If you’re worried about your safety, you can also make a plan with a loved one about what they should do if they haven’t heard back from you in a certain amount of time.
Protect yourself digitally
Isolation can make staying in touch with loved ones difficult. “We are especially concerned that survivors will be unable to reach out for help due to their abusive partner monitoring the behaviors while they are in isolation,” said Ray-Jones. If you feel your abuser may be monitoring your communications, delete calls and messages, use coded language, or chat online in “incognito” mode. If you’re afraid of your abuser hearing you interact with a hotline, use chat in incognito mode instead of calling.
If you’re supporting someone in an abusive relationship, practice self-care
Supporting a loved one in an abusive relationship can be an extremely stressful experience. You may feel guilty about caring for yourself when your loved one is going through so much. But watching someone you care about be harmed is traumatic, and you deserve care, too.
Set realistic boundaries about what kinds of help you can offer, make it clear in what ways you are available for your friends and where you need to draw boundaries, give yourself time to unplug when needed, and continue to care for your own health.
With many of us taking on additional caretaking and work responsibilities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, practicing self-care may seem like a luxury. But caring for yourself is fundamental to your own resilience.
Self-care doesn’t require you to spend money or even leave the house. It first looks like simply making sure your basic survival needs are met. Are you able to eat adequately? Are you getting enough sleep? Even if these things are financially impossible, or difficult because of the abuse or your abuser at the moment, you can take small daily steps toward caring for yourself. If you’re able to leave the house, try taking a daily walk outside. If you are able, cook your favourite meal with pantry staples.
It’s normal to feel anxious, afraid, or uncertain right now. But as a survivor, you have wisdom beyond what you know. Trust your gut. Even during social distancing, you are not alone: there are entire communities who wish the best for you and are available to help. And most importantly, you will always have your own back. You can be your most important resource, your best advocate, and your most steadfast friend.