Heightened Domestic Violence Threat in the Time of COVID-19
By Gena Castro Rodriguez, Psy.D. & Paige Allmendinger, MSW of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office Victim Services Division
San Francisco, like many other places across the world, has issued a shelter-in-place directive in order to help flatten the curve to slow the spread of COVID-19. While staying at home is necessary to slow the spread of the virus, home is not a safe place for all people in our community.
During the first week after the shelter-in-place directive, the DA’s office saw a 60% increase in client referrals to our Victim Services Division, compared to the same week in 2019. The following week, we saw a 33% decrease in new client referrals, also compared to last year. While our data on referral volume paints a seemingly counter-intuitive picture, we can be certain that domestic violence is on the rise due to the nature of domestic abuse. For a variety of reasons, COVID-19 raises threats of domestic violence, while simultaneously erecting greater barriers for victims to reach out for help.
Social distancing measures increase the risk of violence for those experiencing domestic violence. Many abusive partners use tactics like isolation to cut-off friends or family so that they have more control of the relationship. Due to the public health risk of COVID-19, people have been instructed to not leave their housing except for essential errands, children aren’t in preschool or school so they are exposed 24/7 to violence without having any respite nor teachers who might have noticed their distress. People experiencing violence no longer see their friends and family in-person, and neither the person being harmed nor the person perpetrating harm are leaving their homes for work. The more isolated survivors are from work, school, family, and their community, the more at risk they are for insidious abuse. Victim advocates receive calls daily from victims and survivors and hear first-hand how COVID-19 and the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place directive has impacted the abuse they are experiencing.
Brenda and Bob have been married for seven years. Bob works in construction and Brenda stays home with their toddler and newborn daughter. Lisa their 5-year-old is also home as her school is closed due to COVID-19. Bob was laid off in late March and is now home every day too. He has been very critical of Brenda, the cleanliness of the apartment and how she handles the kids. As the crisis has escalated, Bob has become more stressed and worried and does not allow Brenda to leave the house, even to buy food and necessities. Brenda went to the store as she needed food for the family. When she returned Bob would not let her back in the apartment. An argument between the couple escalated and became violent resulting in neighbors calling 911. When police entered the home to investigate, they found a large stash of firearms.*
Indicators of physical abuse may go unnoticed because of social distancing, when in normal circumstances a friend, colleague, family member, healthcare provider or social service provider may have noticed and intervened. In addition to victims and survivors of domestic violence, children, seniors, and dependent adults may be experiencing violence and have fewer interactions with teachers, coaches, medical professionals, and other service providers who often identify and report abuse.
Emotional abuse including intimidation and fear can increase. Economic abuse may be exacerbated by financial fears and realities, including the recent drastic increase in unemployment. Survivors may feel stuck with nowhere else to go and no reprieve from the anger or violence in their home. Survivors may even be manipulated or scared into believing if they leave, they could face consequences from police, immigration, or health officials.
Working from home, at home not working, taking care of children, home schooling, going out for supplies, worrying about bills, and a general decreased sense of safety and wellness would all be stressful on its own; add an abusive partner it’s likely to lead to an escalation of violence.
Factors such as increased stress (health, finances, housing), substance use/abuse, mental health issues, and access to weapons all increase the risk and potential lethality of violence. The Victim Services Division is a part of team in San Francisco with San Francisco Police Department and non-profit partners to assess high lethality domestic violence cases and respond with more intensive services and resources.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, compounding factors put some survivors at additional risk. During this crisis, these survivors are facing additional barriers. Losing housing now increases risk of exposure to COVID-19. Survivors who are low and middle income or were laid off from their jobs may not have the ability to pay for hotel rooms if emergency domestic violence shelters are full. Those with chronic health or physical disabilities may be afraid of leaving the house and risking additional exposure to the virus. Survivors who speak limited or no English or are undocumented may not know what resources are available and may be afraid that no one will speak their language if they leave. Organizations providing life-saving resources and emotional support to the LGBTQ community no longer have drop-in services and they may worry about their physical safety and of discrimination especially in congregate shelter programs. Survivors may worry about potentially exposing themselves or their children to the virus if they leave their current home for the unknown of an emergency housing program. While many organizations are still providing support virtually and over the phone, it is difficult for a survivor to safely access those resources if they are sheltering-in-place in the same home as their abusive partner.
The fewer internal and external resources a person has at their disposal the more vulnerable they are in a high stress situation like this. Those without the privilege of healthy connections, safety, financial resources, and choice feel like they must bear the treatment of their abusers because of their limited options.
Ken and Carmen have been living together for two years. Both work in the service industry. When the city issued the shelter-in-place directive and closed restaurants and bars they both lost their jobs. The stress of no income, no knowledge of how long they’ll be out of work, and growing concerns about being able to pay for food and basic necessities, Ken began drinking more to cope with the stress. The drinking led to increased arguments, which then escalated to physical violence. Carmen is now dealing with unemployment, abuse, isolation and unstable housing.*
On March 17, 2020, our office implemented a plan to continue providing services to victims in our community, but moved to a system of remote assistance, rather than face-to-face meetings. Recognizing the need for creative and innovative response the SFDA has made it possible for the Victim Services Division to continue to provide services and reach out to every survivor of domestic violence, regardless of whether or not the survivor reported the incident to the police or wants to pursue criminal charges. The Victim Services Division assists survivors with safety planning, registering with the VINE inmate notification system, notifying them of case updates and the release of defendants from custody, and referrals to vital resources like emergency shelter, temporary housing, and food.
So, what can YOU do? If you are a family member, neighbor or community member and know or suspect someone is at risk or being abused ask how they are doing, listen to what they have to say without judgment, and let them know where they can get help. Domestic violence programs are still open and available to serve survivors. A list of local and national domestic violence agencies is provided below. There are many vulnerable people during this unprecedented crisis, let’s not forget those who have been living in isolation, in fear, and unsure of their future for a long time.
The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, Victim Services Division works as a part of the criminal justice process. While our office works with survivors regardless of whether or not they want to file a police report or bring a criminal case against the person abusing them, we know that not all survivors feel comfortable accessing services through the District Attorney’s Office. Please see a list of our local and national community-based partners below. These partners provide confidential services and are not part of the criminal justice process.
San Francisco District Attorney’s Office Victim Services Division M-F 8:30-4pm 628-652-4100 firstname.lastname@example.org
Asian Women’s Shelter 24/7 crisis line 1-877-751-0880 https://www.sfaws.org
W.O.M.A.N., Inc.’s 24/7 hotline 1-877-384-3578 https://www.sfaws.org
La Casa de las Madres’ 24/7 crisis line 1-877-503-1850 & 1-877-923-0700. Text Line 415-200-3575 https://www.lacasa.org
The Riley Center 24/7 support line 415-255-0165 https://svdp-sf.org
Mujeres Unidas counselors available M-F 10-5pm 415-621-8140 http://mujeresunidas.net
Native American Health Center: 415-503-1046 http://www.nativehealth.org
Community United Against Violence (CUAV): LGBTQ services call 415-333-HELP https://www.cuav.org
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 24/7, confidential and free: 1-800-799-7233 and through chat.
The StrongHearts Native Helpline for domestic/sexual violence is available 7am-10pm CT, confidential, and specifically for Native communities: 1−844-762-8483
The Trans LifeLine for peer support for trans folks 9am-3am CT:1-877-565-8860 This hotline is staffed exclusively by trans operators is the only crisis line with a policy against non-consensual active rescue.
 The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office is continuing to monitor these trends to ensure appropriate distribution of resources and ultimately identify if there is a causal relationship between the shelter-in-place directive and referrals to the Victim Services Division.
*names and details of client stories have been changed to protect the identity of survivors