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For women trapped in abusive relationships, quarantine can be more dangerous than COVID-19

For most of us, the shelter-in-place order that followed the outbreak of the new coronavirus is a challenge. But for women trapped in abusive relationships, being confined to the home can be more life-threatening than COVID-19, the disease the virus causes.

Domestic violence afflicts one in three women nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Three women a day are killed in the United States by former and current husbands and current boyfriends, reports the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, an underestimate given that half of all domestic abuse cases go unreported, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Like natural disasters, pandemics are prime time for abusive relationships. Stress, mental illness, alcohol, drug use, and things like disease, earthquakes and hurricanes don’t cause abuse, but they heighten a dominant partner’s ability to exploit a situation and amplify a victim’s sense of fear, hopelessness and vulnerability. And thanks to coronavirus, more women and girls are now placed under quarantine with their abusers.

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“Domestic violence is about power and control, and an abuser will use any tool in their toolbox to exert it,” says the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s Chief Marketing and Development Officer Crystal Justice. “Right now, that’s COVID, so that means cutting victims off from everything from hand sanitizer to critical healthcare, and further isolating them, letting them know: ‘No, you can’t leave the house, go for a walk, reach out to a family member, or even go to work. We’re getting calls from emergency responders who are telling us their abusers are restricting them from going to work, claiming they are purposely trying to infect them. So if coercion and manipulation are your main tactics, a pandemic becomes another element you can exploit.”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline averages between 1,800 to 2,000 calls a day, a number that hasn’t gone up yet, just like during holidays, when people are confined to the home with abusers, the number doesn’t go up because victims’ access to hotlines is limited. “But the Monday following the holiday, we notice a surge,” Justice says. “We expect COVID to reflect that pattern.” Meanwhile, more than 700 cases cited COVID-19 as a factor in their experience.

Domestic violence is really about emotional manipulation, says Micol Rieger, a social worker and domestic violence survivor advocate at the Metropolitan Council, also known as the Met Council. “Survivors live in constant fear and are cut off from others, physically, financially and in any other way,” she says. “So when you physically can’t leave your home and don’t have access to money to flee, you feel trapped.” New York’s effective shelter-in-place order has so far prevented one of her clients from moving forward with her plan to leave her abuser.

Met Council does offer continuing safety planning and other options, such as entering into a shelter, calling 911 if things escalate, and remote counseling sessions, which the Met Council provides free-of-charge to its clients and has put in place in lieu of in-person therapy during the stay-in-shelter order in New York.

To accommodate the growing anxiety of her clients, Rieger also is launching a Zoom-powered support group for six of her survivors, all at various stages of their healing process. One of her success stories is “Malki,” a pastry chef and orthodox mother of six, who was wed at 18 and survived 20 years in an abusive marriage.

“Not being able to go out and leave is devastating,” Malki says of women trapped in abusive marriages during the pandemic. “My ex used to sleep with a hammer by the side of our bed and threaten to kill me in my sleep if I ever mentioned what he did to me. I was in survival mode the whole time. I can’t imagine how much more stressed I’d be now with him and all the kids home all the time.”

“Met Council saved my life,” she went on. “I want every woman to know, the hotline is there for you, even if you can’t call because your abuser is there and monitoring everything you’re saying and doing. You can email [email protected] and they’ll respond.”

Though many hotlines now have their staffs operating remotely to comply with stay-in-shelter orders, they are all up and running, 24-7.

“We have a database of 5,000 resources nationwide, including shelters and other resources, catalogued by many things, like are they LGBTQ-friendly, etc.,” says the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s Justice. “We tailor how we connect a survivor to their community. If religious belief is important, we help them find someplace where they would feel most comfortable.”

All information is kept confidential. And though many shelters are at maximum capacity, some agencies can house families at hotels, she says.

Empty room at Sanctuary for Families.

An empty room at Sanctuary for Families.

“If someone feels unsafe calling, they may find our digital chat and text safer options,” says Justice. “Anyone can access the chatline through or they can text ‘loveis’ to 22522, and a live agent will be on the other end.” And you don’t have to speak English; the National Domestic Violence Hotline offers help in 200 languages.

Though the stay-in-shelter order has caused the Family Justice Center offices to temporarily close its offices, they are providing services and support by phone. New York survivors can call 311 to be connected to its staff. And though NYC courts are closed, they remain open for emergency orders of protection, and all current orders of protection will remain in effect until the courts reopen, says Rieger.

Each state has its own domestic violence laws and judicial processes, but securing a legal order of protection is considered an emergency service, and most courts will allow survivors to file no matter where they live.

Still, that doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to our neighbors, particularly if we suspect abuse. “In this time of self-quarantine, it is absolutely important to reach out,” says Naomi Senser, board chair of community outreach and education for Shalva, a Chicago based organization that supports Jewish women experiencing and healing from domestic abuse. “When you call, don’t just ask, ‘How are you?’ Explicitly ask: ‘Are you safe?’” says Senser. “She may not be able to answer if her abuser is around, but just asking that question is validating her experience and may empower her to open up to you when she can.”

Even though many domestic violence shelters seem short on space, Jewish agencies are rising to the challenge and finding options for their survivor clients. “We still have space left,” says Jelaine Altino, deputy clinical director of residential services at Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit organization that provides domestic violence survivors with crisis counseling and emergency shelter, as well as a whole host of services, and has a specialized Jewish program. The Met Council, too, can help connect survivors with shelters where they can keep kosher and Kosher for Passover.

“I’m just glad that — even in the midst of this crisis — we’re not turning anyone away,” she says. “If there’s someone who needs to get out of a dangerous situation, our doors are open and we will assist them in any possible way we can, and get them healed and on their way to wellness and safety.”

Jelaine Altino

Jelaine Altino of Sanctuary for Families

Because Sanctuary’s shelters allow a mother to live independently with her children in individual units, Altino says they’ve been able to limit residents’ exposure to each other and contain any potential spread of the coronavirus. Though some units may share kitchens, they’ve created schedules to stagger their use and regularly disinfect all shared and public spaces. To further restrict any potential spread, Altino is keeping a unit vacant in case a family does contract the disease and need to be quarantined.

“This should allay any fear of someone being turned away if she presents with symptoms,” she says.

“I’ve received calls from women who are really afraid that their children will be taken away from them and put in the custody of their abusers if they show up to a shelter with COVID-like symptoms,” says Rieger. “I assure them that will never happen.”

Ohel, the only shelter servicing Orthodox women in the New York area, is also able to offer room to whoever in the community is in need, according to spokesperson Amy Bierig. They are also rolling out a national helpline in Spanish and Yiddish for individuals to “Zoom-connect” for 15 minutes a day with one of their trauma specialists.

“We need to stick together,” says Malki, who launched a baking drive this Passover for fellow survivors still hoping for their own exodus. “I want other women to know there’s help out there. You’re not alone — even during a quarantine.”

Domestic Violence Resources

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233 or text “LOVEIS” to 22522

Met Council: 212.453.9618

SHALVA’s hotline: 773-583-HOPE (4673)

Sanctuary for Families: 212.349.6009

Ohel: 1-800-603-OHEL

Correction: An earlier draft of this piece misidentified Naomi Senser as Board Chair and Director of Outreach and Education for Shalva. We regret the error.

Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua is a New York-based journalist who is writing and directing her first documentary, “My Underground Mother,” about her search for her mother’s hidden Holocaust past. Follow her on Twitter, @undergroundmom.


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