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Domestic violence centers are expecting a surge as coronavirus keeps abusers home

Domestic violence is expected to increase at the same time some local resource centers end in-person assistance.

Domestic violence counselor Donnell Reid poses for a portrait in a conference room at the Women In Transition office in Center City Philadelphia on Thursday, March 19, 2020. Reid has been conducting services with her domestic violence survivor clients via phone.
Domestic violence counselor Donnell Reid poses for a portrait in a conference room at the Women In Transition office in Center City Philadelphia on Thursday, March 19, 2020. Reid has been conducting services with her domestic violence survivor clients via phone.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

A woman in Philadelphia was planning to leave her abusive partner. But the coronavirus spread, workplaces shut down, and everyone’s been told to stay home. Now, the woman doesn’t have the financial resources to get out, and she’s stuck at home with her abuser.

So she’s employing an in-home safety plan, according to her domestic violence counselor, Donnell Reid: In an explosive situation, try not to run into small rooms with hard floors. Stay out of the kitchen, where there might be weapons. Keep kids on a different floor, away from the abuser, if you can.

A big question Reid can’t answer for her client: How long is this going to last?

“It would be easier if we could plan around like, ‘OK, two weeks you will be able to leave,’" Reid, a counselor at Philadelphia-based Women in Transition, said. “But not knowing is a great strain.”

As efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus have forced millions of Americans to stay home with their family members, domestic violence centers are expecting a surge in activity as people are spend days on end with a partner who may be abusive. Women Against Abuse, a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides support services to people experiencing intimate partner violence, has seen a nearly 30% increase in calls this week compared with the same week last year.

“Stay home” can be a dangerous directive for some — almost three-quarters of family violence occurs in or near the home of the victim, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics. In many families, finances are newly strained, another barrier for people trying to get out. And studies have shown abuse often becomes more severe when a perpetrator is jobless.

“Everyone’s home, people are losing their jobs, the pressure is mounting, and that’s going to create stressful situations,” said Corinne Lagermasini, executive director of Women in Transition, which provides services to people of all genders.

» READ MORE: Unemployment claims spike in Pennsylvania amid coronavirus outbreak

She added: “A lot of clients have left abusers, and they still need support. People are starting to feel anxious in general, and are almost being re-traumatized, feeling a loss of control, feeling trapped and isolated.”

Complicating matters is that the centers to which survivors might normally turn for group and individual therapy have largely ended in-person services, at least for a few weeks, in keeping with social distancing guidelines, so they’re offering support as best they can via phone. It’s not ideal.

» READ MORE: The youngest victims of domestic violence, innocent children are often overlooked | Jenice Armstrong

In-person support builds a sense of trust, and it gets the person out of the home for even a short period of time, said Vashti Bledsoe, program director for bilingual domestic violence services at Lutheran Settlement House, based in Fishtown. And with children and partners home from school and work, people experiencing intimate partner violence might not be able to speak privately via phone.

So Lutheran Settlement House is also offering support via text. And someone is consistently staffing its physical location in case a person walks in during an emergency.

Many resources are still available for people in domestic violence situations in Philadelphia. Hotlines are still staffed at all hours, and Women Against Abuse continues to operate its two 100-bed safe havens, according to executive director Jeannine L. Lisitski.

She said there’s “no way” they would close the shelters, and are taking new precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including limiting the number of people who can be in common areas and making some services like case management and therapy available only via phone. Security, food servers, maintenance workers, and client services staff will still be on the premises, but other external visitors will not be allowed.

“To us, that is more safe than telling a survivor to go out back into an abusive relationship,” Lisitski said. “These people have nowhere to go. This is the safest way to do it.”

And while the organization’s legal center is physically closed, its services are still available via phone and it is taking referrals from partners like the District Attorney’s Office and the Department of Human Services. Courts throughout the region have largely ground to a halt, but in Philadelphia, emergency requests for protection-from-abuse orders will still continue at all hours.

Staff at Congreso de Latinos Unidos, a Kensington community center that also provides domestic violence resources, will continue to provide services remotely, too.

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Lisitski said some will still be without the economic support they need to get out of an abusive relationship. Many of the people Women Against Abuse serves are living in poverty. What the coronavirus crisis has highlighted, she said, “is that this country needs a much stronger social safety net, because this is untenable.”

“In a healthy family this is going to be hard,” Lagermasini said. “If you have violence and power and control, it’s going to be worse. We recognize that, and just want to continue trying to support people any way that we can.”

If you are in the Philadelphia region and experiencing intimate partner violence, call the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-866-723-3014. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233.