Domestic violence reports have increased since COVID-19
A spike in cases during April-June 2020, compared to previous years, was more evident to advocacy providers than law enforcement. Family Safety Network and Support Within Reach staff suggest possible reasons why.
According to a report at a recent Hubbard County Board meeting, the area saw an uptick in domestic violence issues after the outbreak of COVID-19.
When asked if there has been a noticeable increase in domestic abuse cases, Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes responded that he has not seen any increase.
In a three-year comparison of the time of year since the public response to COVID-19 started restricting people’s movements, Aukes said, “In 2020 we have had 49 reported incidents of domestic abuse. During the same time last year we had 45 and during that time in 2018 we had 53.”
So, the number of domestic issues reported to law enforcement has not changed significantly. However, an area agency that advocates for victims of domestic violence saw something different.
“I just did a report for the state, and also, then, a report for the counties with the COVID funding, or the CARES Act,” said Annette White, executive director of the Family Safety Network. “We have seen an increase, absolutely.”
The Family Safety Network – formerly the Headwaters Intervention Center and two other agencies – provides advocacy for domestic violence victims in Hubbard, Cass and Clearwater counties.
White said she compared the number of individual advocacy services FSN provided from April to June during each of the last three years. “In 2018, we provided … 137 individual advocacy services,” she said. “In 2019, same time period, we provided 153. In 2020, we provided 846.”
She said “individual advocacy services” does not mean the number of clients served. Recidivism – “the repeat of people becoming entrenched in the same situation and offenders repeating their behavior” – is a factor, she said.
Asked why she thinks cases spiked with COVID-19, White said from a victim’s point of view, “You can manage how you feel about domestic violence or domestic abuse – you can rationalize that – when you can escape it, when you can give yourself a reprieve. You can talk yourself into feeling like it’s not that bad: ‘I get to take these breaks. I rejuvenate myself, and I can handle it.’”
When you’re isolated with the abuser, there’s no escaping it, she said. “It becomes very real to you. (And so) people are more willing to seek help than they have been.”
This is true especially in a rural area, White said, where there’s less access to public transportation, “so they’re more willing to call our crisis line, or seek out for help, because they don’t have any other reprieve. They’re sheltered and stuck in one place with their offender.”
White hinted that the stresses of the pandemic may also feed into patterns of abusive behavior. She cited such risk factors as social isolation and financial stress – losing a job, being unable to pay the rent, needing transitional housing.
“I think all of those stressors, when you add it to a pot that’s already boiling, are really, really big influences on things like this happening,” she said.
Sexual violence issues
Support Within Reach, serving Hubbard, Clearwater, Beltrami, Cass, Itasca and Aitkin counties, focuses on advocacy for victims of sexual violence. According to Sharry Shadley, SWR’s interim executive director, the number of reports of sexual violence trended in the opposite direction.
“Overall, in the six counties that Support Within Reach serves, we actually saw a decline in the number of victims who were going to the hospital to get what people typically think of as rape kits done,” said Shadley.
She said this may be due to fear of risking exposure to COVID-19 by going to the hospital. Also relevant, she said, is that “sexually violent crimes are the least reported violent crimes in our country. Generally, only about 25 to 30 percent of all victims of sexual violence report their crime.”
Shadley said this has to do with the stigma of being a rape victim, fear of not being believed, and fear of retaliation.
“It’s really hard to say what COVID has done, in terms of impacting sexually violent crimes,” she said.
Her guess is that domestic violence increased early in the pandemic because of the statewide travel ban. “Many people moved into a work-from-home environment amid ongoing safety threats,” she said. “So, people are being cooped up and spending a lot more time together than they ever have before.”
Meantime, she said, there was also a “very significant increase” in purchases of offsale liquor – a factor in the incidence of both domestic and sexual violence.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the incidences of harassment and grooming of future victims increased on social media due to COVID,” she said, “because everybody is communicating via social media and other communication platforms, and typically the grooming of children and teens and young adults, who often can get up in sex trafficking, happens primarily through social media.”
The numbers, however, are not yet fully understood.
Shadley said the uptick in domestic violence cases is unsurprising, given the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19. “Now, people finally have a sense that, OK, more businesses are back up and running again. People can move about the community a lot more freely. School is starting up again,” she said. “I think, for some folks, it feels like there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. I would imagine that’s probably helped reduce some of the factors that come into play for domestic violence, as well as sexual violence.”
Slept through the night
There are 24-hour crisis lines for both Family Safety Network (800-324-8151) and Support Within Reach (800-708-2727), as well as a National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-7233.
White said FSN’s crisis line allows them to start building a relationship with domestic violence victims at the time of crisis, “when they’re the most vulnerable, and so they’re the most willing to talk and reach out for help.”
The agency offers support groups, safety plans and legal clinics, help filing orders for protection and harassment restraining orders, advocacy throughout the legal process, and referrals to other agencies such as MAHUBE-OTWA, Support Within Reach and Wellness Matters.
“We had one victim that we helped during this COVID time, and she sent us a letter,” said White. “One of the things she said is, ‘This is the first time I’ve slept through the night in five years.’
“Many of them, without even realizing it, have been living in this incredible, chaotic whirlpool of stress. So, we continue to work with them on the skills that they might need, to activities of daily living, finances, just simple things like planning menus, as they move forward in their independence, because they need to build a solid foundation.”
Shadley said SWR offices are staffed during business hours, to “help any folks who are in immediate crisis, as well as those that need assistance with protective court orders.” The Park Rapids office at 323 Main Ave. S. can be reached at 237-0300.
“We do encourage people to call first for an appointment,” said Shadley. “But we do have fabric masks available for any folks who want to come in to meet with an advocate in person.”