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In March, National City Police Chief Jose Tellez told the City Council that he was expecting an increase in domestic violence calls with the state’s stay-at-home orders. But when he returned to the council in April, the numbers showed something different: So far in 2020 – even with the stay-at-home orders – domestic violence calls are lower than this time last year.
“That’s a good thing,” he told the City Council members.
His department isn’t the only one experiencing the decline. The San Diego Police Department saw a drop-off in domestic violence calls by 12 percent in the week after California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s stay-at-home order. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department received 30 calls about domestic violence incidents between Feb. 3 and March 1. Between March 2 and 30, that number fell to 21, a 30 percent drop.
But service providers who work with those experiencing intimate partner violence say they’ve seen something quite different. Most of their calls have increased, in volume and severity, and they expect police calls to increase the longer people have to stay at home.
The pandemic has also caused a whole new set of challenges in preventing and responding to intimate partner violence. Service providers have heard that the coronavirus itself has become a new way for abusers to control victims, withholding things like hand sanitizer and access to health care. Programs to prevent domestic violence must be re-worked to reach more people online. Anger management and other counseling programs that can serve as interventions have been impacted.
It’s also gotten harder for survivors to find a new place to stay. Some shelters have had to lessen capacity to maintain safe distancing between families to prevent any spread of the virus within shelters, and many are full. It’s also become suddenly harder to find survivors new permanent housing.
“People are in serious harm’s way and they need help,” said Verna Griffin-Tabor, the CEO of Center for Community Solutions, which provides shelters and resources to survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. “For people who are harming others – these are people who can’t handle their emotions and stress levels – and if this is how somebody manages their stress, it’s only going to get worse.”
In Spain, the emergency number for domestic violence received 18 percent more calls in the first two weeks of lockdown than in the same period a month earlier, the New York Times reported. French police reported a nationwide spike of about 30 percent in domestic violence.
Seattle police reported a 21 percent increase in domestic violence calls in March.
“We are expecting from past experience and anecdotally seeing examples of domestic violence on the rise because of additional contact,” San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan said at a press conference earlier this month.
The district attorney’s office has compiled a list of resources for victims and survivors of abuse on its website.
While domestic violence police calls are down, the San Diego city attorney’s office has served 50 gun violence restraining orders – which allow law enforcement to temporarily take people’s guns if they have reason to believe they will harm themselves or others – in San Diego since the beginning of March, and they appear to be increasing in frequency, NBC 7 reports. There were 26 orders obtained during all of March and in the first 10 days of April, there were 20. Many of the recent cases involved domestic violence or mental health issues.
Last week, a domestic-violence shooting in Lemon Grove left twin 15-year-old girls dead and a 23-year-old wounded.
The same day Newsom announced the state’s stay-at-home order, Maricela Amezola put out a desperate plea on Facebook. Amezola, an immigration attorney, had received a call from one of her clients whose boyfriend had severely injured her. They found a shelter that would take her and her children, but Amezola needed someone willing to drive to Fallbrook to pick up her client’s family and take them there amid the coronavirus risks.
“That happened in the first days of the mandatory stay-at-home order,” Amezola said. “I can’t imagine right now being able to find someone brave enough to put a stranger in their car.”
This wasn’t the first incident, but it was the first time Amezola’s client was able to call her. Her boyfriend had been laid off. He was home all the time, so she couldn’t call Amezola or the police.
“There were quite a few incidents,” Amezola said. “She couldn’t get out of the house and he was always in the house with her. His job laid him off, so she had no free time. They were fighting about money, which added a level of stress. She wasn’t able to make the call to me until he beat her so badly that he fled the scene.”
Amezola’s client called the police that day, but she didn’t end up going to the shelter. By the time the person who had volunteered to get her showed up at her house, she had changed her mind about leaving.
“When you look at patterns of domestic violence, you see patterns of isolation and control,” said John Van Cleef, CEO of Community Resource Center, an Encinitas nonprofit that works with homeless individuals and domestic violence survivors. “Any free time that a victim had to reach out to anyone – when the abuser is at work, when they drop their kids off at school – are diminished. An abuser has abilities to maintain higher levels of control. A decrease in numbers, that fits into abusive behavior.”
Griffin-Tabor said the Center for Community Solutions hotline initially saw a drop in calls right after the stay-at-home order, but in the past 10 days they’ve seen a sharp increase. They’ve also seen a marked increase in reports of sexual assaults as a form of intimate partner violence.
“We’ve seen in the midst of a crisis, there is a drop of calls and once that crisis continues, they will go up,” Griffin-Tabor said.
The Center for Community Solutions has seen similar drops and spikes after severe wildfires and around the holidays in December, Griffin-Tabor said. But it’s never seen an emergency like this – including an apparent increase in sexual assaults.
Van Cleef said he doesn’t yet have official March call numbers, but his team has experienced an increase in need for their services.
“Our counselors’ bandwidth is full.” He said. “Every day through March and April has been a series of triage events.”
Yvette Lopez-Cooper, the executive director of the Family Justice Center in San Diego, a comprehensive wrap-around resource center for survivors of domestic violence, said the center’s call numbers have been steady, but calls have generally been more urgent.
“We believe the calls have become more urgent because the options for escape have decreased,” Lopez-Cooper said. “We are very concerned about domestic violence cases rising, but it is too early to tell what’s happening. Just like with COVID-testing, we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Lopez-Cooper said she has started to see instances where the abusers take advantage of their victim’s fear of being infected by coronavirus to further control them.
Griffin-Tabor noted similar things in the calls her organization has been receiving. People withholding items like hand sanitizer from victims and taking or canceling their health insurance cards so victims can’t independently seek health care.
“They’re using the pandemic to isolate them and exert power,” Lopez-Cooper said.
New Challenges in Providing Services
The coronavirus has impacted survivors of domestic violence in other ways, even once they leave their abuser.
“In our long-term shelter, we had people who were getting back on their feet, had entry-level jobs and were saving money.” Griffin-Tabor said. “Those jobs are gone, and it’s set some of our survivors back. They didn’t need assistance for food and transportation before, and now they do.”
Lopez-Cooper agreed there are new stressors on survivors.
“On top of having to get a restraining order and having to move to a shelter, they now have to figure out where they’ll work and homeschool their kids,” she said.
Griffin-Tabor said that some of their shelters have had to start taking fewer families in order to maintain social distancing and to contain the coronavirus if any families end up infected – though so far there have been no coronavirus cases in any of the shelters.
The shelters also have been unable to get thermometers and have had issues getting things like children’s medicines amid the pandemic, she said. They have only recently been able to start getting masks for families in the shelters.
Griffin-Tabor said her organization had canceled its annual fundraiser due to the pandemic and as a result, is also facing a potential loss in funding.
Van Cleef said that his organization had seen new challenges in finding housing for people ready to leave the emergency shelter.
“Landlords aren’t really looking for new renters right now,” he said.
Van Cleef and Lopez-Cooper said hotel vouchers have become important in filling this gap, with limited shelter space and other housing being difficult to come by.
“We feel that shelters are the best option because they have a supportive environment, but if they’re filled, there are other options,” Lopez-Cooper said. “Hotels right now are vacant and there are opportunities to stay there.”
Van Cleef said that even interventions for abusers, like anger management or counseling, have now also been limited.
Preventative work that all of the organizations do is now having to be reworked into an online format.
Lopez-Cooper emphasized that the courts are still open for domestic violence victims who need to seek temporary restraining orders and that many existing orders have been extended with changes in court operations due to the pandemic.
“You don’t have to stay at home if you’re not safe there,” she said.
Griffin-Tabor said victims should call a hotline before trying to leave if possible, to ensure they have a safety plan in place, since the most dangerous time for those experiencing intimate partner violence is often when they are getting ready to leave.
“If someone can just get to our hotline, we can help,” she said.
The Community Resource Center hotline for North County is (877) 633-1122. The Center for Community Solutions hotline in San Diego is (888) 385-4657. You can call the San Diego Family Justice Center at (866) 933-4673. The National Domestic Violence Hotline number is (800) 799-7233.