Over the last two weeks of March, Americans kept reaching out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help with an unprecedented problem: My abuser is using the coronavirus to control me.
In calls, texts, and other interactions with the Hotline, more than 1,700 people explicitly cited COVID-19 as an aspect of their experience with abuse, according to data supplied to VICE News. People have reported that their abusers are cutting them off from hand sanitizer, antibacterial soap, and showers — all tools needed to stay safe from COVID-19 — according to Crystal Justice, the Hotline’s chief development and marketing officer. Abusers are also lying about coronavirus restrictions, telling victims that they’re not allowed to leave their houses or go to the grocery store. They’ve stopped healthcare providers from going to work, accusing their victims of trying to infect the abuser with COVID-19.
In some cases, violence is also escalating.
“We’re hearing how someone who might have only been emotionally abusive or financially abusive is now physically abusive,” Justice said. “We’re also hearing how someone who perhaps had never made threats via a firearm are now threatening firearm usage.”
From the start of the U.S. outbreak, domestic violence advocates have warned that the frequency and severity of abuse would spike as social distancing left more Americans stranded in their houses all day. Today, those experts are still sure that the pandemic’s toxic side effects of isolation, anxiety, and financial strain are endangering people — especially as abusers have started to leverage the confusion and fear over the coronavirus.
Over the last two weeks, law enforcement from Portland, Oregon, to Collier County, Florida, have reported a spike in reports of domestic violence incidents. It’s happening even in states that have relatively few cases of the coronavirus: Over the last three weeks, the number of calls for service related to domestic violence in Salt Lake City, Utah — a state with just over 1,000 cases as of Thursday — have risen from around 70 to 80 calls a week to more than 90.
The city hasn’t experienced any homicides related to domestic violence, according to Det. Greg Wilking, public information officer with the Salt Lake City Police Department. But it can be tough for police to track any kind of rising severity of violence.
“We know that these cases generally escalate. It might start off with the plate being thrown, but where it ends up might be actual physical violence, up to and including homicide,” Wilking said. “We’re trying to educate people and say, ‘Look, if you’re seeing these signs, these issues, popping up, because we’re in a very stressful time now, you need to take steps right away to deal with this.’”
“She was feeling so hopeless that she was worried her only option was to go back.”
In the Seattle area, one of the first coronavirus epicenters in the United States, police started seeing a spike in domestic violence reports early on. Between February 29 and March 13, the Seattle Police Department received 614 reports of domestic violence — a 22% increase over the same period last year. Police in Bellevue, a nearby suburb, dealt with 64 calls for domestic disturbances in March, a 16% increase from March 2019.
Wendi Lindquist, communications and event specialist for LifeWire, a domestic violence organization in the Seattle area, has already started hearing stories about how the coronavirus is reshaping the lives of abuse survivors. One woman can only communicate with LifeWire through email, because she can’t get on the phone for fear of being overheard by her abuser. Another is dealing with more and more emotional abuse, as her partner’s work starts to disappear, Lindquist said.
In February, another woman, who’s been helped by LifeWire, was feeling stable: She’d left her abusive relationship and gotten back on her feet. But by March, her hours got cut.
“She was feeling so hopeless that she was worried her only option was to go back,” Lindquist said.
LifeWire eventually helped the woman brainstorm new ways she could find childcare and money for rent. But as unemployment numbers skyrocket, financial woes are complicating many domestic violence victims’ ability to sketch out ways to keep safe.
“Now, everyone is taking a look at their finances, everyone is having to look at their budgeting process, and how they’re going to plan for an economic future that is just unknown at this moment,” Justice said. “Abusers are very much using that as a tool.”
People have reported to the Hotline that their abusers have started taking their paycheck or emptying their joint bank accounts, according to Justice. Others have seen their plans to leave their abusive relationship evaporate, along their own jobs and the paychecks they needed to escape.
“Financial abuse has always been common,” Justice said, “but we see it become even more of a factor when there is an anticipated economic impact such as with COVID-19.”
Not every police department is dealing with a surge in domestic violence incidents. In New York City, which had nearly 45,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of Wednesday, reports of all types of crimes, including domestic violence, have fallen.
“Domestic violence, crime, still happens. We have not seen an uptick,” New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said during a virtual Q&A on Tuesday. “But what I’m concerned about is, you know, it’s happening and it’s not getting reported. And I think that’s a reality we should all face.”
The National Domestic Violence Hotline, which serves as a kind of barometer for domestic violence in the United States, will typically see surge in calls after natural disasters. But so far, it’s receiving about 1,800 to 2,000 calls, chats, and texts a day — its average range. That doesn’t surprise Justice: When a woman is trapped at home with her abuser, it’s not exactly easy to call for help.
In past disasters, “We actually experience the spike — a significant spike and a sustained spike — once life begins to return back to normal,” said Justice. “Once people start returning to school and church and work and have that time away from their abuser, then they feel safer to reach out for support.”
The National Domestic Violence Hotline takes calls 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY. If you cannot speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.
Cover: A stock image of a woman showing signs of depression. (Press Association via AP Images)