By Sara Stewart
INDIANA — On Sunday, an Indiana Gazette story cited a crime drop in recent weeks as the community largely stayed at home during the coronavirus shutdown.
“Reports of domestic disputes rose from 20 in early March to just 21 in the last half of the month,” the story reported, “despite the shift to a culture, through business closings, layoffs and stay-at-home orders, where significant others suddenly have increased the amount of time spent in one another’s company at home each day.”
But this statement belies a dangerous trend connected to the quarantine. Domestic violence incidents are on the rise — including, experts say, in areas which are not experiencing a reported increase in calls for help.
Quarantine is the perfect condition for worsening intimate partner violence, and for keeping it hidden, local experts say. The current situation is drastically increasing the isolation victims already experience and raising the tension level by keeping people together in a confined area.
“It makes sense to me that there would be an increase in domestic violence,” said Jo Ellen Bowman, executive director of the HAVIN (Helping All Victims In Need) shelter in Kittanning. “Everybody is stressed, being sheltered in place. Domestic offenders aren’t going to realize, ‘I need to be different.’ It’s just going to exacerbate things. Kids are home from school. There are no stress relievers right now, no normal activities.”
Bowman said HAVIN’s decrease in hotline calls during the shutdown is a worry, not a relief.
“We attribute that to victims’ reluctance and inability to call right now,” she said in a phone interview last week.”The stress and isolation of COVID-19 is not a time when domestic violence is likely to decrease. Communal living in an emergency shelter doesn’t feel like a safe option. We believe we will see a spike in calls and requests for services after the shelter in place order is lifted.”
Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, agreed in a March 31 email.
“We are hearing from survivors how COVID-19 is already being used by abusive partners to further control and abuse,” Ray-Jones said. “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. 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.”
Ray-Jones echoed Bowman’s assertion that in areas that are reporting no increase in domestic violence calls, this is likely due to victims waiting until they feel it is safe to do so.
“We suspect that we may not see a surge in individuals reaching out until shelter in place protocols are lifted and as people start returning to work or school and are apart from their abusive partners, it will be safe and private to reach out for support,” she said.
Detective Sgt. Jeffrey Atherton of the Indiana Police Department told The HawkEye in March that local police had been seeing a disturbing escalation in the calls they do get.
“We have seen an increase in the level of violence towards victims in the domestic violence incidents we’re getting dispatched to investigate,” he said. “We expect that to continue while people are confined to close quarters.”
Audia J. Boyles, executive director of Indiana County’s Alice Paul House shelter, said her organization is up and running.
A slowdown in hotline calls, Boyles said, “could be due to people staying hunkered down and trying to get through this really rough time with the support systems they have in place.”
Another problem, said Bowman, is that there is no option in Indiana, Armstrong, Westmoreland or Somerset counties for victims to text 911 for help. Texting can be a crucial tool when a victim has been confined to a home alongside an abuser, unable to make a phone call.
VICTIMS ALSO MAY NOT be aware that they can still obtain legal protection from abuse during the shutdown.
“I am concerned that people don’t realize they can still get PFAs [Protection From Abuse orders],” Bowman said.
While the courts are closed to much of their normal business, they are still available to process temporary PFA petitions, Bowman added.
“Victims may file for a temporary order, then normally there is a hearing scheduled within 10 days for the courts to make a determination regarding their final order,” she said. “Now the temporary orders will remain in effect until they begin scheduling final hearings sometime after April 30th. Victims can still petition the courts, the Court of Common Pleas during normal business hours, or after hours to the magistrate to get an emergency order.”
During the shutdown, law enforcement officers are encouraging neighbors to be especially mindful of looking out for one another.
“We’d ask all our residents and visitors, if they witness anything suspicious or what they feel might be a violent situation, to report it immediately so we can follow up on it,” said Detective Sgt. Atherton. “We pride ourselves on our close partnership with the Alice Paul House.”
APH’s Boyles said neighbors being alert can help victims, even from a distance.
“Use your eyes, use your ears. Pay attention to the physical presence of people, even those who are social distancing,” she said. “Continue communication. If someone really is in a dire situation and being victimized, they need to know there is a safety net out there. That someone is watching.”
“I think if we could get people to maybe recognize that people they know are in an abusive relationship and try and stay in contact with them so that people don’t feel isolated, I think that’s pretty critical.”
She recommended establishing a communication system.
“If you know their safety is in jeopardy, form a safety plan,” Bowman said. “Help them come up with a code word they could tell you over the phone that means you should call 911, because they can’t.”
She also suggests a visual code between neighbors could work.
“If one curtain is to the side different than it is normally, that means I need help,” Bowman said. “If there’s a lamp in this window, that means I’m not OK.”
Boyles also suggested that those who are experiencing domestic violence and thinking about potentially contacting the police or a shelter, make a concrete plan.
“Think ahead and get together a small travel bag, just in case,” she said. “Know where your documentation is.”
LOCAL ORGANIZATIONS say they remain available to help.
“My counselors are active,” said Boyles. “We’re continuing to follow our daily tasks. For maintenance of the shelter, we’re using additional precautions, sanitizing more often. Segregating off the clean spaces and not having them entered or accessed until needed.”
The state has defined such social-assistance organizations as essential, Bowman emphasized.
“We’re doing everything we can,” she said, “to let people know we’re open.”
Sidebar: For more information
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact the following organizations for help:
The Alice Paul House
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Chat online at thehotline.org
Text: LOVEIS to 22522
Sara Stewart is a freelance journalist who writes for the New York Post, CNN.com and other publications. She is a member of the Indiana Borough Council.