With four billion people now sheltering at home because of COVID-19, the United Nations and agencies across Florida are concerned the stress could mean more violence against women.
Peaceful Paths – a domestic violence center serving Alachua, Bradford and Union Counties – has received 25% more domestic violence calls and requests for legal assistance during the outbreak, said its executive director, Theresa Beachy.
Beachy said she expects even more people will seek help once the virus slows down.
“We anticipate that as the quarantine ends, and as people start to resume normal movement around the community, that we’re going to see a major uptick in services for outreach,” Beachy said. “Especially in our counseling programs and requests for shelter.”
Effects from the coronavirus such as rising unemployment, decreased access to mental health providers, growing substance abuse, loss of productivity and fear of contraction could all intensify domestic abuse, Beachy and other victims’ advocates said.
According to UN Women, an organization dedicated to gender equality and female empowerment, the increase of cases will worsen as the economy continues to suffer. It had previously estimated the global cost of violence against women as being $1.5 trillion.
Somy Ali, founding president of No More Tears, a domestic violence nonprofit in Miami, said calls to her agency have almost doubled during the pandemic. Some victims are relying on abusers to pay their bills and prioritizing financial security over physical safety, Ali said.
“Domestic violence has no prejudices,” Ali said when referring to which households were more at risk these days. “We’ve had abusers that have been doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, nurses. People from all realms of life and professions. It has been truly unprecedented.”
Reports of domestic battery and disturbances have increased in Alachua County since the county commission issued a stay at home mandate on March 24. During the week before, there were 41 domestic battery and disturbance calls to Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. There were 58 such calls the week after, according to Sgt. Frank Kinsey, a spokesperson for the department.
“It is hard to completely blame COVID-19 for the increase because domestic violence is such a multi-faceted issue,” Kinsey said. “But the idea that people are being forced together in difficult circumstances is definitely caused by COVID-19.”
As of now, he said, the cases are manageable with the number of deputies on duty, but the sheriff’s department would increase the number of patrol cars on duty if necessary.
Beachy said it is important to hold abusers accountable for their actions.
“I think all families are under stress in this situation,” she said. “While stress alone doesn’t cause domestic violence, it can exacerbate an existing dynamic of power and control and just increases the risk that someone is going to get hurt.”
One in three women and one in four men have experienced domestic violence, according to the American Psychology Association. Stress and social isolation can increase the risk of abuse.
Abigail-Ann Hartwick, 29, moved to Gainesville six years ago to flee domestic violence and is now attending law school with the goal of defending other victims. Hartwick said she fears victims will be more afraid of contracting coronavirus than leaving the abusive relationship.
“Some of these victims are so conditioned by their abusers that their first reaction is to protect them because if they don’t, they’ll be punished,” she said. “That’s a very vicious cycle to try to break, especially when there is pandemic occurring.”
Hartwick said deciding to seek help when she was abused was difficult, but it was the best decision she ever made. She urged everyone to set standards for how they should be treated.
Sgt. Paul Bloom, director of public information for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, said domestic violence victims should be more concerned with seeking help in these violent situations than contracting COVID-19. While the county has seen a 5% decrease in reported crime overall, Bloom said his agency has noticed a significant uptick in domestic calls.
The Miami-Dade Police Department found a 15% increase in domestic cases last month compared to March 2019, said a spokesman, Detective Argemis Colome.
The increase included more cases involving entire families instead of just partners, which is likely due to children being kept home from schools, Colome said.
He also said there has been a significant decrease in nighttime calls.
“People are scared to leave their houses, and the nighttime can enhance that fear,” Colome said.
In Alachua County, sheriff’s officers are trying to implement safety precautions while responding to domestic violence calls, including doing incident interviews outdoors and staying 6 feet apart whenever possible, Kinsey said.
“Even though times are different, we are still working to support victims,” he said.
No More Tears and Peaceful Paths both are focusing on collecting essential items for victims, such as food and toiletries, to alleviate stress for those seeking help from the nonprofits. Both agencies remain open and have 24/7 telephone helplines, and their staff and volunteers have implemented safety precautions to provide clean and healthy space for refuge.
“The world is in a horrible place, but to any victim suffering right now, you don’t need to go through this,” Ali said. “All you have to do is pick up the phone.”
Hartwick said she remained confident that more victims can become survivors like her.
“A life full of fear from a loved one is not a life at all,” she said. “There’s always hope.”