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It's hard to flee from your domestic abuser during a coronavirus lockdown

During the COVID-19 lockdown, calls for help to domestic violence hotlines have grown shorter and more frantic. One woman shared her story with NBC News.
Image: The silhouette of a woman standing by a window.
Elizabeth Livermore / Getty Images; NBC News

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), visiting or texting LOVEIS to 22522.

When the stay-at-home order went into effect in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, C. realized her plan to leave her abusive husband had just been sped up. Her two teenage children would suddenly be home to witness the violence.

"My kids were home from school and they were going to see this," said C., who asked that her full name not be used to protect her privacy. "They knew how controlling he was, but knowing that they would be home — we didn't make it two weeks into our stay-at-home order."

The family walked on eggshells during the order, she said. "What I wore to the way I did my hair — anything would set him off."

C. knew she was going to leave, but didn't know when or how. When an argument over what television channel to watch began to escalate one night, she'd had enough.

She told her husband she was leaving, she said. He threatened to throw her down the stairs.

C. and her kids stayed in a hotel that night, while her husband emptied her bank account, freezing her financial options. At the bank the next morning, which was open for drive-through service only, she explained what happened to the teller. The teller said she'd once been in a similar situation and gave C. the phone number for the local domestic violence organization, Safe House for Women, saying they could help her.

Within hours, after a call to Safe House, C. and her children were in a hotel room with a kitchenette, where they've been for the last five weeks. She's among many women who have fled domestic violence during stay-at-home orders who have ended up in hotels for long-term stays because shelter capacity has been dramatically reduced to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.

Domestic violence organizations around the country have overhauled how they operate in the last two months due to coronavirus, working to support isolated victims who are suddenly harder to reach and help than ever. It's an unprecedented challenge for domestic violence groups, which provide victims with everything from shelter to legal support, mental health counseling, relocation assistance, and even rape crisis response.

Thirty-five local domestic violence organizations in 19 states shared with NBC News how their work has changed since the start of the crisis. Most saw major disruptions in requests for services. Hotline calls became shorter and callers more frantic. In some areas, calls more than doubled, in others, lines went eerily silent as victims trapped at home with abusers had limited privacy to call. Several providers said that while reports of abuse went down under their local stay-at-home orders, those that did come in described more violent incidents.

The pandemic has forced domestic violence groups to figure out how to file protection orders remotely, how to provide emergency shelter that doesn't create unnecessary exposure to the coronavirus, and how to reach victims who can't make phone calls. Many have implemented innovative solutions, such as working with local courts to set up e-filing for protection orders, partnering with hotels to increase shelter capacity and rapidly setting up text-message hotlines.

Yet all that costs money, and funding for these organizations, which often already operate on shoestring budgets, is suddenly far less stable. Many have lost significant income in the past two months and are bracing for future budget cuts at a time when experts say domestic violence is on the rise. A number of city law enforcement agencies previously confirmed to NBC News that they saw an uptick in calls about domestic violence during the first few weeks of stay-at-home orders.

Image: A new glass barrier in the conference room where Rise-NY advocates work with non-residential clients to file family offense petitions since the local family court is closed to everything but e-filing.
A new glass barrier in the conference room where advocates from Rise-NY, a domestic violence program near Binghamton, N.Y., work with non-residential clients to file family offense petitions, as the local family court is closed to everything but e-filing.Courtesy of Rise-NY

"These crimes are rooted in power and control," explained Beth Larsen, the executive director of Resilience: Advocates for Ending Violence in Western Michigan. She, like all the providers who spoke to NBC News, expects a rush of people seeking assistance as restrictions lift.

"Any threat to an abuser's feelings of vulnerability almost always escalates violence toward other individuals — who are often intimate partners or family members," she said. A pandemic is just that kind of threat.

Not safe to talk

Under normal circumstances, victims reach out to domestic violence shelters, families, or co-workers when their abuser isn't home, according to shelter directors around the country. But under a stay-at-home order, they may never have a chance to place a call because their abuser is always present.

"Abusers thrive off isolation. With the pandemic, it is a perfect storm for domestic violence," said Kristin Shrimplin, president of Women Helping Women, which provides domestic violence services in greater Cincinnati. "Survivors are telling us that it is not safe for them to talk."

Organizations that run hotlines reported varying changes in calls to NBC News. A majority of groups saw shorter call durations after shelter-in-place orders went into effect. Some saw call volume and website traffic rise. Others experienced the opposite. One group in Texas saw both its highest and lowest daily call volumes ever in the same month.

There are many factors that could affect trends in call volume and duration, said Ruth Glenn, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "What are the stay at home directives? Are they rural or urban or suburban? What is the social economic area that you're in? How many domestic violence resources are available?"

Overall, said Glenn, "We probably saw a decrease when we first went into COVID crisis, survivors adjusted to their temporary normal — they figured that part out — and now they're figuring out how to be safer.

The increase in frantic calls and severe abuse reports led the Domestic Violence Action Center in Honolulu to provide additional mental health resources for staff members as it worked to expand services.

"We had to be more creative in our outreach to better protect survivors and our own staff," said CEO Nanci Kreidman. When it became "impossible for us to make a phone call," she said her nonprofit rushed to build a 24/7 text message service.

While the national domestic violence hotline has been providing online live chat and text messaging for more than a decade, local hotlines often only have the capacity to take calls. Some, like Kreidman's, have pushed to add texting or website live chat services in the last two months. Others said more victims are contacting them through Facebook messages.

Around the country, organizations are coming up with innovative solutions to other challenges created by social distancing. Advocates who can no longer accompany survivors during sexual assault exams at emergency rooms now participate through video conferencing. Providers are filing protection orders online and hosting virtual support groups and therapy sessions. An organization in Ohio is supplying more covert aid by hiding money in food deliveries.

The pandemic's unprecedented unemployment numbers only further discourage victims from leaving their abusers, said Shrimplin.The vast majority of the people her organization assists have a family income below $50,000. "Many women that we serve are financially dependent on their abuser and more often than not, have one or multiple kids," Shrimplin said. "It's even worse that more and more are losing the jobs they barely had."

Sojourner House in Providence, R.I., has seen more clients reaching out to its transitional housing program for rental assistance than ever before. "We used to receive a few requests for rental assistance a month, but in the month of April we received 50 such requests in one week," said executive director Vanessa Volz.

'We didn't want to turn anyone away'

What happens when victims make the leap and reach the shelters? Unfortunately, traditional shelter design doesn't lend itself to social distancing.

Most domestic violence shelters were designed for short, emergency stays: they were set up dormitory-style, with shared bathrooms, kitchens and other common spaces. In recent years, many have shifted toward more small rooms of just a few residents or single families, with residents staying sometimes weeks while they regain a sense of safety and independence.

To keep residents safe and comply with public health guidelines, shelters around the country have reduced capacity. Many have limited the number of staff on site at any given time, asked residents to stay in their rooms when possible, and placed six-foot markers in shared areas. Some have created quarantine space out of a room with a private bathroom, in case anyone requesting assistance shows symptoms or is awaiting a coronavirus test result.

Image: Shelter crisis advocate Karissa Hobbs prepares to complete daily temperature checks of shelter residents at Safe House for Women in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
Shelter crisis advocate Karissa Hobbs prepares to complete daily temperature checks of shelter residents at Safe House for Women in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.Courtesy of Safe House for Women

"As a domestic violence services provider, we used to strive to provide trauma-informed, victim-centered care," said Nicole Barren, executive director of Rise-NY, located near Binghamton, N.Y. "Much of this practice has had to be abandoned to keep staff and residents safe."

When the New York stay-at-home order took effect, Barren's team made the difficult decision to temporarily close their 20-bed shelter for nearly three weeks to properly prepare it to be a safe environment. They worked to get a hold of sanitizing supplies and masks for staff and residents, instituted daily temperature checks, and fitted their transport van with plastic sheeting between the driver and passenger area.

"We now have grab and go meals," said Jeannine Lisitski, the executive director of Women Against Abuse in Philadelphia, which operates two 100-bed shelters in the city. "Everyone is wearing masks, we're taking temperatures from everyone."

With capacity reduced in many places, organizations are turning to hotels to insure they can provide housing to those in need. Hotels with unfilled rooms are offering many shelters discounts, but housing victims in them brings additional challenges, keeping them isolated and more difficult for service providers to be in regular contact with.

Domestic violence groups have long used hotels for short, temporary housing when necessary, but the pandemic has led many to start using them for long-term stays. The biggest challenge is food, as few hotel rooms have kitchenettes, and many victims seek housing with their families.

Other options have similar challenges. Resilience in Western Michigan is currently housing more families at an unnamed alternative location than at its shelter. While the second location has greatly expanded capacity, the organization has taken on the task of coordinating daily food deliveries for all residents there.

Image: April Hopkins, shelter manager for Rise-NY, with a face shield made by a shelter maintenance worker.
April Hopkins, shelter manager for Rise-NY, a domestic violence program near Binghamton, N.Y., wears a face shield made by a shelter maintenance worker.Courtesy of Rise-NY

The need for safe housing in compliance with social distancing has strained resources for Safe House for Women, the Missouri group that has been helping C., despite a swell of community support.

"We received a grant from the Community Foundation of the Ozarks for $10,000 to help us with our hotel placements, but in the month of April we spent $13,000," said executive director Jessica Hill. "At one point, we had 20 people in the shelter and 20 people in the hotel. We didn't want to turn anyone away."

While more isolated than a shelter, the freedom of the hotel has been "amazing," C. said. Away from her husband, she is taking steps to build a life for her family somewhere new.

"I've had a lot of people ask me, 'Why didn't you leave before?' And it's that he had that much control over me," she said.

Now, she makes her own decisions. "I took my kids fishing for the first time in ages on Mother's Day, because that's what I wanted to do. And we had the best time."

Uncertain future

Helping families like C.'s takes time and money. Yet since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., more than half of the 35 organizations NBC News spoke to have lost significant funding. Before the pandemic, many were already facing funding cuts from government grants, in some places the cuts were upwards of 20 percent.

"Our income has gone down but our expenses have not," said Sandy Nadeau, communications director at Anna Marie's Alliance in St. Cloud, MN. "Will businesses rebound and donate? Will people hold on to funds and not donate?"

SafeHaven of Tarrant County in Texas spent $35,000 on technology alone to move to partial remote work. The YWCA of Dayton, Ohio had to cancel its largest annual fundraiser, which usually sees 900 people attend and brings in more than $200,000. The Safe House for Women in Missouri lost almost two months of income from its thrift store, which typically provides 30 percent of the organization's operating budget, when it had to temporarily close its doors.

Image: Tape on the floor and plexiglass barriers in the newly reopened thrift store run by Safe House for Women of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Before the coronavirus, the thrift store provided 30 percent of the domestic violence nonprofit's operating budget
Tape on the floor and plexiglass barriers in the newly reopened thrift store run by Safe House for Women of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Before the coronavirus, the thrift store provided 30 percent of the domestic violence nonprofit's operating budget.Courtesy of Safe House for Women

The new financial strains have forced some domestic violence organizations to consider cutting their services and hours.

Glenn, of the national coalition, said programs around the country expect to see a significant increase in calls and a rise in reports of domestic violence as restrictions ease in the coming months and more people are able to share their stories from isolation. "All of us in the domestic violence field of work are bracing ourselves," she said.

The worst case scenario is turning away people in need. "Supply won't be able to meet demand, and the thought of having to turn away survivors who have been hurt is terrifying," said Kreidman in Honolulu.

"It's going to cost us and it's going to cost survivors."

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), visiting or texting LOVEIS to 22522.