By Nick Parker
With families forced to remain at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, incidents of domestic violence are rising in Orange County.
“We have seen an increase in numbers this March over last year’s,” said Susan Friedman, associate director of Chapel Hill’s Compass Center for Women and Families. “We served 231 last year in 2019, and in 2020 we’ve [already] served 269.”
Megan Johnson, a licensed clinician and supervisor of the Crisis Unit with the Chapel Hill Police Department, confirms the point.
“Domestics are definitely on the rise, nationally and in our community,” Johnson said.
The local increase is in line with reports from across the state and nation and around the globe: cases of domestic violence have continued to climb as people have been forced to remain at home because of shelter-in-place edicts.
During the month of March, for instance, Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, saw an increase of 20 percent in domestic violence calls over the same period last year, according to an NBC poll of police stations around the country. Other metropolitan areas, such as Houston and Phoenix, saw 18 and six percent jumps, respectively.
“I think the climate that we’re in with the stress and uncertainty… combined with an already dysfunctional home, is just a perfect storm for that increase,” Johnson said.
The rise does not come without precedent.
“I do think that the rate of domestic violence often does go up around crisis,” said Friedman. “We’ve seen that during other periods of crisis as well — Hurricane Katrina is one example.”
While the pandemic and its impact may not be the direct cause of domestic violence, it can certainly aggravate underlying factors, experts say. And the stay-at-home rules can create additional opportunities for abuse.
“When survivors are forced to stay in the home or in close proximity to their abuser more frequently, an abuser can use any tool to exert control over their victim, including a national health concern such as COVID-19,” says the National Domestic Abuse Hotline on its home page.
“In a time where companies may be encouraging that their employees work remotely … an abuser may take advantage of an already stressful situation to gain more control,” including, perhaps, “withholding necessary items, such as hand sanitizer or disinfectants, or sharing misinformation about the pandemic to control or frighten survivors.”
Johnson said “the biggest thing I want to stress to people is that we understand that it is a very stressful time, but please reach out. I just want people to know that the community supports them, and that we’re all in this together.”
The Crisis Unit responds to a variety of situations including intimate partner or sexual violence. The Compass Center provides extensive services for victims and survivors of domestic violence, which includes running a 24-hour hotline which anyone seeking guidance or support can call. Despite being under lockdown itself, the center is still working to fulfill its mission.
Compass Center Hotline: (919) 929-7122
National Domestic Violence Textline: text “love is” to 2522
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 799-SAFE (7233)
“We’re not providing diaper bags from our office, we used to do that,” said Friedman, “but otherwise we’re providing all of our services remotely.”
While there are a number of available resources for domestic violence victims, there are still some roadblocks. At the moment, Orange County does not have a shelter dedicated solely to victims of domestic violence.
There is a homeless shelter, said Friedman. “But currently there is not a domestic violence shelter, and we are working towards that right now.”
While surrounding counties often do have shelters for domestic violence victims, they are not always nearby. “They’re having to look statewide for a shelter,” said Johnson of one victim. “Someone could go to the complete opposite end of the state just to have a safe place to sleep. How do you go all across the state and get to your job on Monday?”
Relocating, even briefly, to a shelter potentially three or four hours away could mean losing work, childcare and support networks. That is why, according to both Friedman and Johnson, seeking out help before a situation escalates can be a crucially important and valuable move.
Because shelter availability may be limited due to COVID-19, the hotline says victims of domestic violence or abuse should consider alternatives such as staying with family or friends, staying in motels or even sleeping in a vehicle — all while being extra mindful of good hygiene practices such as washing hands regularly.
Even when stay-at-home restrictions ultimately are lifted, Johnson noted, that doesn’t mean all root causes of domestic violence will necessarily ease.
“Just because the pandemic is over doesn’t mean those financial stressors, those economic stressors, will go away,” she said.
However, Johnson was hopeful that there could be a silver lining to the current situation.
“This is a community trauma,” she said, “and this is going to impact people in various situations. And sometimes it takes going through an experience like this to have a realization. It can turn people on a different path.”