Domestic violence on the rise during COVID-19
Editor’s note: This story discusses the sensitive topics of domestic violence and abuse.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Julia Luciano remembers worrying when Advocates of Routt County saw a decrease in local domestic violence calls when county public health officials ordered a stay-at-home order due to COVID-19 in the spring.
National experts believed domestic violence cases were increasing due to added stress and families spending more time than normal together, but for Advocates staff, seeing a drop in calls was a reason for concern.
“If victims are living in a home with an abuser, they are probably getting a lot of that stress (from COVID-19) turned on them,” said Luciano, who is a victim advocate.
But as the county and state lifted COVID-19 restrictions, the calls began increasing. Victims were able to leave their houses again, connect with friends and return to safer situations to call for help.
In 2019, Advocates received 178 calls at this point in the year. In 2020, calls have increased by 71%, with 308 calls so far this year.
Barriers to getting help
In several Routt County towns outside of Steamboat Springs, residents have little to no cellphone service or access to reliable internet and often live far away from their neighbors.
COVID-19 lockdowns, Luciano said, have amplified this struggle for rural victims, who are usually women.
“Pre-COVID, someone could leave the home more frequently, they had more social contacts and more opportunities to find safety,” Luciano said. “But now that they’re home more often, their opportunities to find safety have diminished.”
Abusers often use psychological manipulation with their victims. This can come in forms of isolation, gaslighting, name calling and attempting to turn family members against them, Luciano said. Advocates advises victims to seek social connection, even if it’s as simple as emails sent back and forth with a child’s teacher.
Gaslighting, acording to the National Dometic Violence Hotline, is defined as “a form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, thoughts, instincts and sanity, which give the abusive partner power and control.”
“Sheltering in place isn’t the same hardship for everyone,” said Marnie Christensen, a former victim advocate with Advocates of Routt County. “The people that are locked at home with their abusers in such a highly stressful situation are much more likely to continue to be abused.”
The high cost of living and the difficulty many face in finding housing is another issue for many victims in the Steamboat area, Christensen said.
A frequent tactic for abusers, several experts said, is controlling their victim’s bank accounts, preventing them from getting a job or even stealing money from them, which makes leaving an abuser nearly impossible in normal times, let alone in the midst of a pandemic.
“How do you work enough and make enough where you can buy food for you and your kids in the middle of a lockdown when maybe you’ve never been allowed to work?” Christensen said.
COVID amplifies the issue
Experts agree COVID-19 has not turned non-abusers into abusers, but external stresses over the pandemic and recession, coupled with victims being stuck inside and isolated from the world, has only enhanced the domestic violence epidemic the nation already faced.
“The stress of COVID is not causing people to become abusive,” Luciano said. “Rather, we’re seeing an increase in frequency and severity of violence due to COVID.”
Most shelters in northwestern Colorado have been consistently full during COVID-19, Christensen said, and victims are often afraid of leaving the house as to not anger their abuser. Often, she added, abusers will use physical violence or manipulation to keep victims from being able to leave.
Most domestic violence cases do not begin with physical violence or serious threats, Luciano said. Rather, many cases start with what appears to be a healthy relationship, and over time, dangerous behavior develops, with offhand comments and arguments turning into physical violence, manipulation and gaslighting over a period of time.
“Systematically and eventually, the abuser has then cut off the victim from everyone else who they would normally turn to for support,” Luciano said. “Just leaving is not an option for a lot of survivors.”
In addition to economic control, abusers have used gaslighting and restricting control of medical access to keep victims showing symptoms of COVID-19 from getting a test or seeking medical help, said Tamika Matthews, community impact manager with Violence Free Colorado.
“Abusive partners may use tactics around the pandemic to control survivors, such as misinformation to frighten survivors into staying, limiting access to insurance to stop survivors from seeking medical assistance or telling survivors they can’t leave due to stay-at-home orders,” Matthews said. “Any of these can contribute to increased domestic violence.”
One tactic experts believed was amplified dramatically by COVID-19 is isolation.
Domestic violence does not always include physical violence, experts said, but social isolation is a commonality, and mandatory lockdowns made for a “perfect storm.”
“One of the biggest things abusers do is they use isolation to control their victim from other people,” Christensen said. “COVID has made this super easy because they’re already not allowed to.”
Law enforcement response
While domestic violence nonprofits across the state have seen an increase in calls during the pandemic, law enforcement agencies in Routt County have seen the opposite, said Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen.
Christensen was unsure why the department’s numbers were slightly lower than those of 2019.
“There are thousands of reasons why someone would stay with an abuser, and I think one of the reasons we overlook a lot is, often, they still love the person,” Luciano said.
If a domestic violence cases reaches a courtroom, the victim is usually expected to testify, according to Matt Karzen, 14th Judicial district attorney. He said fear of retribution from an abuser can be a deterrent to taking a case to court, though judges can use protective orders for victims as soon as an abuser is arrested, and laws prevent witnesses from being harassed.
“Realistically speaking, we need the victim to testify,” Karzen said. “They’re often the only person who can describe what happened.”
Another issue COVID-19 has created, Marnie Christensen said, is abusers being booked and immediately released from jail, a process that began early in the pandemic meant to decrease the spread of COVID-19 in jails.
“Unless it’s a big felony, no one is staying in jail,” she said. “Within hours, the abuser can be back with their victim,” often angrier and more violent after an arrest.
Experts worry domestic violence cases will continue to increase as COVID-19 spreads even faster, stressors are increased and stricter lockdowns are imposed.
“We’re all very worried about victims, and we’re worried that the severity of domestic violence is going to spike with a shutdown,” Marnie said. “They’re feeling the effects of the pandemic in a very violent way.”
Experts recognize COVID-19 restrictions are necessary to slow the spread of a dangerous disease, but they said tactics used to support domestic violence survivors should be amped up now more than ever.
“Believing survivors and supporting them in the ways that make sense for them and their safety is a priority,” Matthews said. “Survivors know what they need and how to best navigate their situations, so providing them the tools they need to stay safe is key.”
Advocates of Routt County offers a variety of services, including a shelter, to anyone in Routt County impacted by domestic violence. Advocates can be reached at 970-879-2034.
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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