While many Americans are staying home for their own safety during the pandemic, home can be the most dangerous place for domestic violence victims. The usual places victims escaped to in the past are not always available now.
“We’re hearing a lot of stories– ‘I’d go to my parent’s house, but my parents are elderly and in a high-risk group. I can’t go there,’” said Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Some domestic violence shelters around the country say they’re full – after reducing capacity to maintain social distancing – and struggling to help survivors.
How to find help
Help and advice:
Advocates at the National Domestic Violence Hotline noticed another disturbing trend. Those who were calling and texting the hotline reported an increase in the frequency and severity of abuse. It’s the same trend that happened during the last economic downturn, said Jones.
“We were hearing women and men say, ‘normally my partner pushes or shoves me- tonight he strangled me,” Jones said.
“We get quite a few calls from victims saying ‘he put his hands around my throat.’ We could even hear in a woman’s voice the hoarseness from when her partner had strangled her.”
The Hotline normally has about 1,800 to 2,000 people reach out per day through calls, texts and online. Jones said while that number dropped some at the start of the pandemic, it went up 9% over the next few months.
Jones recommends survivors make a 12 step “safety plan” in the event an abuser escalates his or her behavior.
Identify your partner’s use and level of force
Assess the risk of physical danger to yourself and others before it occurs.
- Have they thrown things?
- Have they threatened you?
- Are they capable of hurting you or themselves?
- How strong is your partner?
- Do they have access to weapons?
Often the situation is more dangerous than you might think. Jones said many domestic violence victims underestimate how far their partner might go.
“Often a victim will call and say, ‘I’m not sure I should be calling you. He actually never hit me yet,’” Jones said.
Meanwhile, the survivor says their partner has made threats of suicide and homicide which should be taken very seriously.
Identify safe areas in your residence
If you have nowhere to go, safety planning is critical. Look for pathways to exit, away from any weapons. If arguments occur, “Stay out of places where you might get assaulted by things not traditionally used as weapons,” Jones said.
- Stay out of the kitchen – knives and boiling pots of water can be used to harm you.
- Stay out of the bathroom – razors and toilets can be used to hold you down, and towels can be used to strangle you.
- Stay out of rooms where your partner keeps a firearm.
Have a phone accessible at all times, know numbers to call for help
- Know where nearest public phone is located.
- Consider buying a cheap flip phone from a drug store with prepaid minutes.
- Keep friends and family members’ numbers on your cell phone, as well as the number for a local shelter and the Hotline’s number: 800-799-SAFE (7233).
“We are hearing abusive partners will take the phone and monitor phone activity if you are trying to find opportunities to leave or seek help,” Jones said.
In that case, you can buy a phone at a drug store with prepaid minutes on it that your partner doesn’t know about.
Let trusted friends and neighbors know about your situation
Develop a plan and visual signal for neighbors for when you might need their help. Give them clear instructions ahead of time on who you want them to contact, or not contact when you might need their help.
“You may not want them to call law enforcement,” said Jones. The decision should be in the victim’s hands.
“We’re getting calls from survivors saying ‘I called police but because of Covid, they aren’t detaining for misdemeanors’ – creating a complicated safety issue for survivors” Jones said.
As a friend or neighbor, you want to say “How can I help you – what do you need?”
Talk to others living in the residence about how to get help
Establish a mutual signal for when a child or roommate should get help or leave the house. Instruct them not to get involved in violence between you and your partner. “Injuries to children often happen in the midst of domestic violence,” said Jones. “They get caught in the crossfire.”
Create plausible reasons for leaving the house
- Trip to grocery store.
- Spending time with friends.
- Needing to stay at work longer.
- Errands that need completing.
- Whatever would make sense to your partner.
Practice how to get out safely, if possible
Make your safety plan almost automatic. “If violence breaks out, your brain is in crisis mode and you may not remember the plan,” said Jones.
Role play your plan repeatedly in your head, and go through all the steps. That might include getting elderly family members that may be living with you out safely or getting a baby in the car with the car seat.
Plan for what to do if your partner finds out about your plan
If your partner finds out about your plan, that loss of control the abuser feels could be dangerous, said Jones. Come up with some other rationale for why you’ve made a plan.
Lock away or hide any weapons, whether they belong to you or your partner
You should make weapons as inaccessible as possible. A barrier that slows the abuser’s access to a weapon to use against you could buy valuable time.
Jones recommends you don’t pull out weapons to defend yourself because they can end up being used against the victim. Also it will make police responding to the assault have to figure out who is the victim and who is the perpetrator.
Be mindful of how clothing or jewelry could be used to physically harm you
- Avoid wearing scarves.
- Avoid wearing jewelry.
Back your car into driveway when you park at home and keep it fueled
If possible, keep the driver’s door unlocked to allow for quick access to the vehicle.
If violence is unavoidable, make yourself as physically small as possible
This is a sad reality. If you can’t safely escape, “move to a corner and curl into a ball with your face protected and arms around each side of your head, fingers entwined,” according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s list of recommendations.
“It’s a heartbreaking one,” said Jones. “You want to protect your head, your brain, your internal organs. You’re preparing your body for kicks and punches.”
Getting help around the world: If you or someone you know is being affected by domestic violence, a worldwide list of directories is provided by UN Women. You can also find a list of national agencies on The Pixel Project