Domestic Abuse, Sexual Assault Victims Likely At Higher Risk During Coronavirus Isolation

Mar 25, 2020

As people self-isolate and self-quarantine to help stop the spread of coronavirus, abusers frequently have greater access to their victims. Meanwhile, victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse have less acess to help.

"We know that domestic violence increases when survivors and their children are isolated with their abusers," said Dr. Gail Patin, CEO of Hubbard House, a full-service certified domestic violence center in Jacksonville.

Patin said the coronavirus pandemic could offer unique opportunities for abusers to gain or maintain power and control over their partners. For instance, they could threaten to kick their partners out of the home - potentially exposing them to the virus - or they could deny their partners medical treatment.

"Abuse is about power and control, and in a pandemic, abusers know exactly how they can use the present health crisis to manipulate and keep the victim isolated from life-saving help," Patin said.

"When you think about domestic violence and sexual violence, it really is about control. And when the entire world seems to have lost control, that's often when perpetrators try to regain some of that control and it does place individuals at higher risk," said Teresa Miles, executive director of the Women's Center of Jacksonville, a certified rape crisis center.

The Women's Center has already seen a slight uptick in calls to its rape crisis hotline. They've helped four victims of sexual assault in the past 48 hours alone.

"When people are more isolated and perpetrators feel as though they've lost control, we do worry that we're going to see an increase and we're starting to see it now," Miles said.

Related: Local, State, And National Coronavirus Coverage

"What we see on a regular basis - prior to this crisis - is that survivors often will seek help when they go to work, either through their colleagues or they're away from their abusers so they can talk to us. Or they'll go to a friend's house and get information while they're over there. Or they will go to a library and call us from there or get on the computer and learn information," Patin explained.

But now many victims don't have those options. More people are working from home as federal, state, and local officials urge everyone not to leave home for social gatherings; and public spaces like libraries are closed. That leaves more victims unable to make phone calls because their abusers are ever-present.

"The abuser has increased access to survivors and the children while the survivor has decreased access to resources, meaning the survivor can't get out into the community like they normally would to get help," said Patin. "And that is pretty scary because these homes are very volatile and we're talking about people who are in life and death situations."

But the Women's Center of Jacksonville and Hubbard House are ready and able to help victims, even during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Both organizations have a 24/7 crisis hotline that remains up-and-running. Hubbard House's 24-hour domestic violence hotline can be reached at 904-354-3114 and the Women's Center's 24-hour rape crisis hotline number is 904-721-7273. The state level domestic violence hotline number is 1-800-500-1119.

However, if survivors are in immediate danger they should call 911 first. The Women's Center and Hubbard House will be able to help survivors figure out next steps once they're safe.

Survivors are strongly encouraged to be extremely cautious as they reach out for help because leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time for a victim, according to the National Coalition of Domestic Violence. One study found that the most common precipitating event when men murder their wives was a threat of separation or an actual separation.

To avoid retaliation, victims should only call one of these hotlines when they are safe. If a victim has unmonitored access to the internet they can also research safety planning, find other resources, or reach out to friends and family for help. However, they should be sure to clear their browsing history as soon as they're done.

Hubbard House also encourages victims to keep charged cell phones with them at all times so they can reach out to the police if they fear or experience abuse and so they can safely call a crisis hotline if the opportunity presents itself.

If you suspect a friend or family member is a victim of sexual assault or domestic abuse, be cautious in your approach. If you are on the phone with someone who you suspect is a victim, ask yes or no questions, like "are you safe" or "do you need me to call the police for you," in case their abuser is listening.

Miles said one of the most important things for victims to keep in mind in challenging times like this is that help is available.

"The moment we answer that call, we're going to believe you and try and figure out what to do to help you," she said.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.