Shelter-at-home order raises potential for domestic violence in Metro Detroit

Detroit — A Dearborn Heights man was arrested earlier this month following the fatal stabbing of his mother in the home they shared, an incident Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy cited in  warning of the potential of domestic violence with people cooped-up together during Michigan’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order.

Although the case against Mohamed Ali Saad — charged in the death of 64-year-old Fatemah Ibrahim — is still to be told in court, Worthy said the allegations in the case illustrate the potential for home violence in the age of the coronavirus pandemic.

"It is expected that because families are at home and together more than usual, incidents of family violence may be more prevalent," Worthy said. "Please know that there is help available for families in crisis before these tragedies occur. Please seek that help."

Despite that potential, Worthy’s office reports the number of domestic violence cases is slightly down since March compared with the same period a year ago. Yet concerns remain they will grow. And her plea for victims to protect themselves is being repeated across Michigan as other prosecutors, police and shelters report an uptick in domestic violence cases elsewhere.

A limited canvass in Oakland, Macomb and Genesee counties found increases in domestic violence reports in some localities. And while circumstances vary, one constant is noted : isolation caused by the pandemic.

Authorities point at trouble, from battling siblings to controlling spouses who have turned violent.

Warren Police Commissioner William Dwyer said that between January and April, there were 320 domestic violence cases — up slightly from 310 the previous year.

“I would anticipate the number to grow the longer people are at home, especially those with a history of domestic violence,” he said.

On a recent weekend, Warren police responded to a home death where a man who had a previous domestic violence case had called 911 to say his wife needed attention, Dwyer said. The woman’s body had been moved, he said, and the matter, including results of an autopsy, is pending.

That same weekend, a 19-year-old father was arrested and is facing charges following the death of his 4-month-old child at a motel, Dwyer said. A preliminary investigation indicated the child’s crying might have provoked the father. The child subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

Kent County, which includes the state’s second-most populated city, Grand Rapids, recorded 90 domestic violence cases in the last week of March and the first week of April in 2019, but had 134 cases during the same period this year, said Prosecutor Christopher Becker.

“We have seen a 48% rise in domestic violence incidents compared to last year at this time,” Becker said. “I just had a meeting with our county sheriff, and there is a ton of domestics.

"Not all serious: mother against father; two teenage sisters ripping each other’s hair out; two brothers fighting over a phone. Some of these things may not have been reported in the past, but we are getting them now.

"People feel cooped up and (are) arguing more. They aren’t always fatal but could escalate. People are frustrated.”

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, which provides contracted patrol service for 365,000 residents across 15 communities, reports calls for service are up slightly in domestic violence this year: 178 compared to 170 in 2019. There were 365 family trouble reports compared to 292 incidents the year before.

“We know even in holiday seasons when families get together, domestic violence calls go up,” Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said.

He said everyone is under additional stress with emotional and financial concerns. There are worries about the health of family members, and concerns about when things might return to “normal” or when they may be able to return to work.

“If someone is committing domestic violence and there is evidence, we are going to lock them up,” he said. “But our goal is to help people get through this period, not make things worse."

Domestic violence cases haven’t increased everywhere. In Detroit, there’s been about an 8% drop in domestic violence cases over the last month, Assistant Chief David LeValley said.

But calls to the crisis line at the Turning Point, a 52-bed domestic shelter in Mount Clemens, have shot up in the past month, director Karan Bates-Gasior said.

“It’s up easily 25%, maybe more,” she said. “Unfortunately, now is not a good time for survivors.”

While calls to the crisis line are up, the shelter isn’t full, Bates-Gasior said.

“I think people are too scared to leave the perceived safety of their homes,” she said. “A shelter is a scary place, even not during a pandemic. When you’re confined with a lot of other people, I think that’s a concern.”

One woman who’s staying in the shelter is a health care worker. “She’s on the front lines, so we take her temperature when she returns,” Bates-Gasior said.

Calls into the hotline at the First Step domestic violence shelter in Plymouth shot up about 30% between February and March, director Lori Kitchen-Buschel said. She said her 45-bed facility is full.

“We already didn’t have enough beds, and were turning away about 125 families per month before (the pandemic), and that’s stayed consistent,” she said. “Where we’re seeing the big increases is people calling for emotional support, or access to resources.

Kitchen-Buschel said it’s not always possible for victims to call hotlines with their abusers at home with them.

“That’s a concern: How do we meet the needs of clients who can’t step away to make a safe phone call?” Kitchen-Buschel said. “We’re trying to find ways we can be more responsive in ways we typically haven’t done.

"For instance, we normally don’t take complaints over Facebook Messenger because of confidentiality concerns, but now it’s a way people can get hold of us because it’s not safe to make a phone call.”

Violence against children is a concern.

“One of the ways violence against children is often discovered is at school — but now the kids aren’t in school,” she said. “I’m afraid all these factors are going to create a real lack of early intervention, which could lead to long-term community trauma.”

(248) 338-0319

Get help

The public is urged to contact these agencies in Metro Detroit which provide resources for domestic violence and sexual assault victims:

First Step crisis line: (734) 416-1111

Turning Point crisis line: (586) 463-6990

Wayne County SAFE sexual assault services: (313) 430-8000

ACCESS (serving Arabic-speaking community): (313) 216-2202

CHASS and La Vida (serving Spanish-speaking community): (313) 849-3920

Detroit Police Victim Assistance Program: (313) 833-1660

Haven of Oakland County: (248) 334-1274

YWCA Interim House: (313) 861-5300

National Domestic Violence hotline: (800) 799-7233

Source: Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office