Opinion: Home isn't safe for everyone

Barbara Niess-May

In every community, COVID-19 poses additional threats for survivors of domestic violence. With external factors of mass closures, record numbers of people not working or working from home and the tension of the unknown, stress can build and lead to increased incidences of domestic violence.

As well, the recommendation for social distancing parlays into the oft-used tactic of abusers: social isolation. In our work, it has been our experience that assailants use social isolation to gain greater control over the survivor. It often begins in subtle ways, but grows over time, which minimizes any help a survivor can access and can have significant physical and mental health impacts.

Social isolation risks alienating family and friends, endangers employment, can turn children against the survivor, and can lead to a reduced or lost role in household decision-making.

And now it is a government-sanctioned practice. Some behaviors assailants might exhibit during this public health crisis include:

►Minimizing or preventing survivors’ efforts to secure supplies;

►Using social distance as a means to further control and disconnect completely (no social media, phone use, etc.);

►Trying to convince them that they have the virus, or that someone in the household has the virus and it’s the survivor’s fault;

►Stating that police won’t respond because they are too busy with the public health crisis;

►Claiming shelters and helplines aren’t available because “everybody is closed down”;

►Assuming survivors may not consider shelter for fear of being exposed to COVID-19.

And the list goes on.

Our program, and many others nationwide, are struggling to balance public health needs with survivor needs. Community support is critical at this time. We have fundraising events planned that won’t happen, which will lead to revenue losses.

Survivors will move out of a shelter at a much slower rate because of being unable to secure income. Couple that with closures and businesses ramping down, housing not being available and social programs working with skeleton staff, and this is a social crisis.

A victim of spousal abuse is seen at a safe house in Nevada County, California. Such shelters are struggling to meet rising demand.

The impact multiplies if the survivor is experiencing poverty, is an immigrant or has multiple children.

We are hearing from survivors. For example, a helpline caller’s husband is returning from overseas early and she doesn’t have time to implement her safety plan. Another survivor is wondering how long it will take to get a Personal Protection Order (PPO) because county and state offices are shutting down. The requests for help are complicated and don’t have easy answers.

We are learning from Italy and China that there could be a significant spike in requests for help and support from survivors of domestic violence because of the factors listed above. Programs throughout the country are making difficult decisions to help and support survivors.

Community support, financial and otherwise, will make an enormous difference in a local program’s ability to support survivors through this public health crisis. Making financial donations to programs will help fill gaps in planned fundraising revenue and assist with unexpected costs of addressing the unique needs of survivors. Sharing with your networks that programs are available and open, and that you are someone who can be trusted to listen can be the needed support to someone in your circle experiencing domestic violence.

Being educated about the impact of domestic violence and helping local programs help survivors will make a difference during this public health crisis.

Barbara A. Niess-May is the executive director of SafeHouse Center, a supportive service and social action agency that provides help to more than 5,000 Washtenaw County residents who are impacted by domestic violence and sexual assault.