By Dana Branham The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Dana Branham reports, domestic violence organizations often see upticks in violence when people are in close proximity for extended periods. In this case the threat of the virus can generates additional stress.
Domestic violence service providers across North Texas are bracing for what could be an especially dangerous time for people living with their abusers.
With schools closed and many suddenly out of work or working remotely to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the need for social distancing could strain already violent relationships and trap victims in their homes.
At the same time, local service providers suspended volunteer activities and changed their operations to keep their staff and clients safe from COVID-19.
Why this is a particularly dangerous time
Domestic violence organizations see upticks in violence when people are in close proximity for extended periods -- like when families gather during the holidays or are stuck inside during ice storms.
Those who provide assistance to victims believe the coronavirus will create a similar situation, said Paige Flink, CEO of the Family Place in Dallas.
The virus already generates additional stress. Plus, some will experience financial strain after sudden layoffs. Others must help their children learn at home now that school buildings have been shut down statewide. And beginning 11:59 p.m. Monday, Dallas County will be under shelter-in-place orders that prohibit residents from leaving their homes except for essential work and errands.
"It's an unfortunate combination of situations for anyone right now, what we're dealing with," Flink said. "But when you add on top of the fact that people are in bad -- sometimes really bad and violent relationships -- that makes it much, much worse."
Domestic abusers often exert power and control over their victims by isolating them from their support system, said Kathryn Jacob, CEO of SafeHaven of Tarrant County.
"What better time for domestic violence to survive than when we're actually being instructed to isolate," Jacob said.
Coronavirus isn't top of mind for those seeking shelter from abuse, Jacob said.
"Domestic violence has been a pandemic for us for a long time," she said. "And the people that we serve are far less concerned about COVID-19 than they are about when their partner is going to get home from work or what might set him off today."
Bracing for increases In Tarrant County, SafeHaven has already seen an increase in people asking for shelter intervention that the staff has anecdotally attributed to the impact of the coronavirus, Jacob said.
The numbers started to rise around the time schools began announcing they would close, she said.
Dallas police, however, have seen a drop in calls so far this month when compared to the same time last year.
Jan Langbein, the CEO of Genesis Women's Shelter and Support in Dallas, said she's not expecting to see an influx of calls -- "because it won't be safe to make those calls," she said.
"I think the need will be there, but if the abuser is at home as well, it wouldn't be safe to make a call to the shelter or to a hotline," she said, adding that she'd expect to see an uptick once people are able to go back to work or and resume normal schedules.
In that situation, she'd urge people in violent relationships to look for small windows of opportunity to make a call for help -- to call if they take a walk or if their abuser falls asleep or leaves to go to the store. The National Domestic Violence Hotline also has a chat feature online, if it's not safe to call.
Genesis also created a guide to safety planning for those stuck at home with an abuser during the coronavirus outbreak.
Langbein, Flink and Jacob each said their organization's shelters were full or nearly full. But they said that wouldn't stop them from finding ways to help victims in need of a safe place to stay.
At the Family Place, "we're full because we're full," Flink said, but they're also trying to hold open some rooms to be used if a family needs to isolate due to illness.
Right now, they can only shelter people in imminent danger, Flink said. The circumstances have to be dire, and a person has to have nowhere else to go. The Family Place has recently taken in someone who was shot at by an abuser and another who was discharged from a hospital after an attack, Flink said.
"It is devastating," Flink said. "For those people, we're just going to take them and, you know, it will drain our resources. But I don't see how during this time we can't."
Changes to operations North Texas shelters have said they are cleaning and disinfecting more often and adding extra hand sanitizing stations at their facilities. They're also getting inventive to make sure clients and staff follow social distancing recommendations by offering some services remotely.
When Jacob visited SafeHaven's two emergency shelters, she saw the staff's creativity on full display. It's been a busier-than-normal time, and school closures mean plenty of kids are there, too.
Staff set up a gymnasium with "Minute to Win It" game stations, using 6-foot-long tables as a visual cue to keep kids spread out, Jacob said. Most of SafeHaven's children's programming takes place in the evenings, after school lets out for the day, but now children's staff are "on deck all the time," she said.
They're used to preventing the spread of disease in shelters, Jacob said. "Every time there's a flu outbreak or a stomach virus or hand, foot and mouth -- all things that can be very contagious -- we're used to figuring out how to deal with all this," she said. "So we're basically implementing those same procedures, but as you know, exponentially."
At Genesis, leaders had to make the tough call to close its thrift store temporarily, meaning a loss of income. But some of the staff that worked at the store may be redeployed for disinfecting duty, Langbein said.
They've also stopped volunteers from coming to the shelter. Now, the nightly meals that were typically provided by volunteers are bought, prepared and served by stretched-thin staff, Langbein said.
"We're trying to get our sea legs right now on how to operate and how to protect not only our clients, but our staff," she said.
How to help The leaders of the Family Place, Genesis and SafeHaven said they urgently need financial donations as they continue to serve victims of domestic violence. Donations can be made online here:
The Family Place Genesis Women's Shelter and Support SafeHaven
Resources for domestic violence survivors To find emergency shelter or talk with a professional as a victim or as a concerned friend or family member, contact: The Family Place -- 24-Hour Crisis Hotline: 214-941-1991 Genesis Women's Shelter and Support: 214-946-4357 Brighter Tomorrows: 972-262-8383 SafeHaven of Tarrant County: 877-701-7233 National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
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