Domestic violence has risen during pandemic
During the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in the rates of more violent domestic cases over what we would expect to see.
— Dennis Wygmans, Addison County’s State’s Attorney
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series about women’s health in the pandemic.
ADDISON COUNTY — Reports on the number of COVID-19 cases in an area and any success at flattening the curve are good ways to show the public health impacts of the coronavirus. But there are other indicators of the virus’s impact on public health that are less obvious but also critical.
As physical distancing and isolation measures and practices work to mitigate the spread of the disease, they also serve to trap survivors of domestic and sexual violence at home with their abusers and hinder access to crucial support services, according to local advocates. Across the country and globe, experts warn that gender-based violence is on the rise during the pandemic, demonstrating that for some, the call to “stay home” and “stay safe” represents a troubling paradox.
In Addison County, official reports of domestic violence took a dip at the beginning of the pandemic and now are returning to normal levels, but the outreach a local service organization has received paints a different picture.
From February to March, when Gov. Scott’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order was placed, the number of calls to the Middlebury police for assault dropped to zero, and sex offenses dropped by 89%. Domestic calls were at their lowest of the year in April, with only three, compared to six in the same month last year. Assaults and sex offenses remained low in April, at one and three calls, respectively.
Instances of domestic violence are typically classified as “domestic” but are sometimes moved to “assault” if physical harm is inflicted. Sex offenses are distinct because they do not involve a cohabitating relationship.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley explains that this decrease in calls follows historical precedent.
“What’s typical when you have a major traumatic event, whether it’s September 11th on a natural disaster, there’s an initial shock value where people hunker down, they stay home, and social activities — the kinds of activities that generate police calls – grind to a halt,” said Hanley. “For about six-to-eight weeks, our calls tend to drop off exponentially.”
Dennis Wygmans, Addison County’s state’s attorney, also notes that economic factors may explain why official reports — but not necessarily actual rates — of domestic violence were low. “For a lot of people, their income was suddenly gone,” he said. “If they’re cohabitating with their abusers, there are very few options to leave.”
Vermont’s economy has been hit hard by the pandemic and related shutdowns. One-hundred forty small businesses in the state have closed their doors permanently since March, and the unemployment rate remained high at 8.3% as of July, compared to just 2.4% in February.
As stay-at-home measures began to loosen in May, calls pertaining to domestic and sexual violence picked up. In Middlebury, assault and domestic calls doubled from April to May, and assaults doubled again from May to June. Total calls rose from 218 in April to 375 in May and then stabilized.
This is consistent with Chief Hanley’s six-to-eight-week mark.
“Once you get to that period,” he said, “things pick up, especially if people are sequestered together. We see interpersonal relationships struggle and anxiety rise. In this case, we have economic factors driving some of that. And the numbers roll back up.”
Domestics and assault calls have since returned to levels similar to previous years. In fact, domestic calls in June and July were slightly below what they were at the same time last year.
However, Wygmans, whose office prosecutes cases from throughout Addison County, pointed to another more troubling trend.
“During the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in the rates of more violent domestic cases over what we would expect to see,” said Wygmans.
Cases that reach his office are classified as either misdemeanors, which do not typically involve physical injury, or felonies, which involve serious injuries, strangulation, the use of weapons, and/or parties with prior convictions.
According to Wygmans, there’s been a recent increase in the number of domestic cases classified as felonies. He attributed this to economic stress, among other factors, and reminded that, “A lot of cases are never reported to law enforcement.”
Beyond police calls, the outreach that WomenSafe, an Addison County nonprofit that supports individuals experiencing domestic and sexual violence, has been receiving during the pandemic also suggests that official reports do not tell the whole story.
In fact, WomenSafe, which provides a range of free and confidential services, has seen an 8% increase in the number of calls, emails, and messages it has received and did not experience the initial drop in calls that the police did during the pandemic.
“Folks get their needs — for safety and healing — met in a lot of different ways,” said WomenSafe Executive Director Kerri Duquette-Hoffman, referring to why some people may choose to reach out to WomenSafe and not necessarily the police. “It is an extremely personal decision … I can say that I don’t think domestic violence is down.”
According to Duquette-Hoffman, not only is the need for services as prevalent as ever, but also, during the pandemic, it has been even more difficult for survivors to get their needs met.
For example, economic stress and physical distancing measures have made it more difficult to get away from abusive situations.
“Any time there’s financial stress in a family, it lessens the options survivors have, because sometimes you can increase your safety by getting out of the house,” said Duquette-Hoffman. “That’s also hard with remote working and the stay-at-home order.”
Furthermore, many services have changed due to the pandemic and become less accessible.
“Whether it’s the court system, housing, getting a ride … everything’s more complicated now,” said Duquette-Hoffman, explaining WomenSafe’s work to help survivors navigate other services. “Things are taking a lot longer, and survivors often don’t have that extra time.”
In response, WomenSafe has adjusted many of its operations to try to maintain accessibility.
“Everything’s had to adapt, honestly,” said Duquette-Hoffman. “We’ve worked hard to figure out ways to keep meeting the needs of survivors, and very few of our services haven’t changed.”
Sometimes these adjustments are relatively straightforward. The chat and email support WomenSafe offers has received more outreach than ever before, and the organization is working making its helplines as secure and easy to use as possible.
Other changes require some creativity.
During the pandemic, WomenSafe has helped survivors access technology that can increase their safety, which has included providing survivors with cellphones, and covering data-plan costs.
WomenSafe also moved its support groups online and is currently virtually offering a writing support group, a general support group, and a Middlebury College-specific support group. The organization also hopes to start offering socially-distanced support groups outdoors, depending on restrictions.
Navigating the court system has also proved challenging. WomenSafe provides legal advocacy and helps survivors obtain relief-from-abuse orders, which are civil court orders that offer protections to individuals experiencing abuse, such as ordering the abuser to cease contact and/or to maintain a certain distance. They can also grant survivors temporary custody of children and invoke protections for pets.
“Usually, we’d be at the courthouse, but civil court was for a while fully remote and now is hybrid,” said Duquette-Hoffman. “So, that’s looked very different. Sometimes we’re helping folks access the remote sanctions.”
WomenSafe also provides supervised visitation for parents to see their children when it is court-ordered that they do so with a supervisor. These visits are now occurring outdoors.
Another important area of WomenSafe’s work that has been affected by the pandemic is with homelessness and emergency housing.
For example, WomenSafe helps people access transitional and emergency housing programs, often through the state. Recently, the organization built its own transitional housing apartments, which house survivors for six to 18 months. These apartments opened during the pandemic.
“Housing and homelessness have a huge relationship with domestic and sexual violence,” said Duquette-Hoffman. “We have a significant amount of Vermonters who are trading sex for housing or are housed precariously and in situations where they’re not safe.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2016 that, for between 22% and 57% of homeless women, domestic violence was the immediate cause of homelessness. According to Vermont’s annual Point in Time Count last year, of the 1,089 Vermonters experiencing homelessness, 12% reported they were fleeing domestic or sexual violence.
However, for the first four months of the pandemic, the Vermont Agency of Human Services made the decision to house every person experiencing homelessness through an expanded motel voucher program, on which the state has so far spent $13.5 million.
“This was an enormous stress reliever for many survivors,” said Duquette-Hoffman, “and I think that folks in the state government have really been ingenious about taking this opportunity to really make a change in our homelessness.”
As a result, WomenSafe’s work surrounding homelessness has slowed down, although Duquette-Hoffman expects it to pick back up again as the state slowly phases in its original requirements for obtaining emergency housing.
“That’s a big thing going forward,” she said. “We’ll definitely have an increase in need as folks are looking at housing again, and as the temperature turns colder.”
Other changes Duquette-Hoffman and others expect to see this fall include a rise in reports of child abuse, which have dropped significantly during the pandemic, as schools reopen and children are in contact with mandated reporters such as teachers and counselors.
She also expects more clarity on the current domestic violence situation, as well as long-term impacts of domestic violence on children and families.
“Many times, people heal when they have some increased safety, so I think we’ll hear in the years to come how much the pandemic really was an impact,” she said. “And because so many kids spent time at home, they’ve been exposed to more tough family and relationship dynamics. Providing kids and parents with resources for processing that is going to be really important.”
In other words, it may be too early to tell. But Duquette-Hoffman finds humanity and complexity in the stories that can’t be pared down to a number — and in those that don’t show up in the numbers at all:
“There’s a lot of stuff that isn’t necessarily captured in the data, official or not … People are enormously creative, strong, and brilliant, and I have no doubt that there are survivors who have figured out ways during the pandemic to increase their safety that we haven’t even thought of, so we’ll hear those stories, too.”
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