While health officials recommend social distancing to mitigate the number of COVID-19 cases, staying at home presents a challenge to many, particularly those in abusive relationships.
“There’s more opportunity for violence and less opportunity for deescalation,” said Alicia Bickoff, director of programs at CHANA, which is entering its 25th year of providing counseling and aid to Jewish families who experience abuse in Baltimore.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported a growing number of callers who say abusers are using COVID-19 to further manipulate them.
“Perpetrators are threatening to throw their victims out on the street so they get sick,” Katie Ray-Jones, the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, told TIME magazine. “We’ve heard of some withholding financial resources or medical assistance.”
“The dynamic of domestic violence hasn’t changed,” Bickoff said. Rather, they are concerned about the consequences of a quarantine on survivors, according to Lauren Shaivitz, executive director of CHANA.
“Part of it is when everybody is together more, there is more opportunity for domestic violence to present itself,” said Shaivitz.
In addition, if a victim is stuck in the home with an abuser, it can be more difficult for him or her to call a trusted friend or CHANA. A key element
of abuse is to eliminate social support for the victim, which makes quarantine ideal for abuse to occur.
If the victim needs to go to the doctor, it can be more difficult to be seen with the flurry of potential COVID-19 patients filling hospitals.
“We know that a lot of abuse is identified through people coming to emergency rooms, and we know the impact that the health care industry has, so it’s still early for us to assess what that’s looking like,” Bickoff said. She is concerned that victims who find help when talking to a doctor will lose that resource.
Shaivitz pointed out that abuse is also spiritual, emotional, financial, and sexual.
“Physical abuse is just one of the arenas,” Shaivitz said, “and to be quite honest, it may be easier for victims to get medical access if they can say they are showing symptoms, to leave the house.”
However, each case is unique. “It’s really hard to make any general statement, ever,” Shaivitz said.
Another problem manifests with isolation, where young adults in an abusive relationship may not want to stay with their parents out of fear of exposing them to COVID-19. Shaivitz noted finding places for victims to stay is also an increasing challenge.
To tackle these issues, CHANA is looking for alternative, risk-free shelters while it continues its normal work. Its usual safety planning and tactics coordination is adjusting to operational changes, while the staff is still working with each survivor to personalize their options and help them make safe choices.
“The staff, completely remote, is completely ready and willing and able to help any victim or survivor who is encountering any intimate, sexual abuse, or elder abuse,” said Bickoff.
The phones are still answered with the support of the IT department and The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore. Its hours are Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. – 8 p.m., Fridays 9 a.m. – 4 p.m, and Sunday 9 a.m. – noon.
Bickoff said they’re learning technologies like Zoom to stay in touch with survivors, and being extra meticulous about what questions they need to ask to communicate safely, as the abuser may cross technology boundaries.
Most recently, CHANA changed its plans for its annual Mother’s Day race. It is working to create a virtual race, where the community can do its own 5K on a personal exercise format. Those interested can follow these updates on CHANA’s Facebook.
However, it can be difficult for the organization to publicize an event when they don’t want abusers to know details.
Another obstacle is the ability to raise funds. “We worry like everyone worries,” Shaivitz said. “We are concerned like all nonprofits as we watch the state of the economy.”
Bickoff noted that the whole community is trying to educate and offer resources. She recommended that those in contact with older adults ensure that they have enough medication and food and make sure that they’re safe.
She also advised that people be careful when intervening, as one can unintentionally escalate a situation.
“What might help one person and minimize harm and risk might put another individual, it might [worsen] the danger for another person. There isn’t one general answer that can ever be a general catch-all,” Shaivitz said. “The reason that domestic violence agencies exist is that this is a complex issue.”
CHANA is completely confidential and free. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, contact CHANA at 410-234-0030 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.