The president of FOCUS Ministries, a Christian nonprofit for victims and survivors of domestic violence, grew concerned when the organization’s phone lines went silent in the days following various statewide orders to stay at home due to COVID-19. “We know from past experience that [victims] are often not OK. … They may be afraid to reach out,” Paula Silva said.
By last week, the Chicago-area ministry had reached its normal flow of hotline calls again. But Silva said callers, mostly women, reported their situations had intensified since the pandemic began. Advocates at FOCUS help women access resources and come up with a safety plan if they face danger. They also pray with them and share the hope of Christ.
The stress, uncertainty, and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an increase in domestic violence reports in some cities, as many victims live under the same roofs as their abusers. In recent weeks, police departments in cities like Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and Charlotte, N.C., have reported a spike in domestic violence cases. Chicago saw a 15 percent increase in the number of domestic violence calls during the first week of April, compared to the same period last year. New York’s domestic violence resource website, NYC Hope, jumped from an average of 45 visits per day to 115.
In other cities, such as Los Angeles, the number of domestic violence calls remained the same. Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit organization for sexual and domestic violence survivors, said the reason could be that “more survivors are managing their safety from home. … There’s a lot of walking on eggshells.”
Christina So, a spokeswoman for The National Domestic Violence Hotline, said her operators had not seen an uptick in calls. But abuse advocates have reported specific ways COVID-19 is affecting victims and survivors: One caller considered returning to an abusive relationship because local shelters were turning away new residents, citing coronavirus concerns. Another abuse survivor had no place to take her four children since extended family members are high-risk for COVID-19. Other hotline callers reported emotional abuse had turned physical, or abusive partners were leveraging COVID-19 to further isolate, coerce, and harm them.
“Isolation is one of the strongest tactics an abuser can use,” So said. “Many survivors don’t even have the safety or privacy to reach out.”
At Peace Over Violence, Giggans said the organization is working with the Los Angeles Police Department and other groups to set up temporary housing at local hotels for domestic violence victims and their children.
Meanwhile, FOCUS has moved its regular support groups—located in various parts of Illinois, Georgia, and Washington—to online platforms. It has canceled training workshops for new support group leaders, and advocates are working harder to help victims create safety plans or obtain services from local shelters, churches, transitional homes, and food banks.
Silva, a survivor of domestic abuse, founded the ministry 25 years ago with another woman from her church. For now, the group is relying on phones and computers to offer support and prayer. But Silva’s message to abused women has not changed: “I encourage them to read the Psalms. I tell them, ‘God has one for you to cling to.’”