Domestic violence centers navigate coronavirus crisis as calls spike

"It's harder for [victims] to reach out."

May 28, 2020, 6:08 AM

Domestic violence has seen a dramatic increase during the novel coronavirus pandemic, with victims cooped up with their abusers under stay-at home orders and unable to access services they normally would utilize for support, according to officials.

As resource centers face this new crisis, their services "are vital now more than ever," Keith Scott, the director of education at The Safe Center, a Long Island, New York-based domestic violence resource center, told ABC News.

"Abusers thrive off of power and control. Right now, an abuser could be controlling an entire household," Scott said. "It's harder for [victims] to reach out, it's harder for them to be more private."

The Safe Center is one of many domestic violence resource facilities adapting to the new circumstances of the pandemic.

Efforts to maintain contact with victims who have reached out to the center include weekly therapy sessions with counselors through video conferencing apps or phone calls.

Scott said the center has had to think of innovative ways to conduct the sessions without abusers knowing, including having victims say that they are going to the grocery store and then going to either a friend's house or calling from their cars.

PHOTO: Woman on phone.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, whose office works with The Safe Center, told ABC News she recommends that victims who do not feel comfortable making a report immediately take photos of injuries they sustain and keep a diary of incidents.

Singas said that if someone feels their phone is being monitored, they should send the images to someone they trust and then delete them from their own device.

"It becomes harder because their abuser is usually right in the room or right in the same home with them," she said. "A lot of advocates are calling women and trying to make sure that if someone else answers the phone, they're not saying who they are."

In New York, there has been a spike in domestic violence reports since residents were told to stay home to stop the spread of the virus, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office.

Calls to the state's domestic violence hotline were up 30% in April compared to last year and up 18% from February to March, when New York's "PAUSE" order, which shut all but essential businesses, took effect, according to Cuomo's office.

State police also reported that domestic violence incident calls were up 15% in March compared to last year.

Singas, who is a former special victims prosecutor, said that the increase in calls is because the "usual safeguards are not in place."

"If you're in an abusive situation or a potentially abusive situation, being locked in with your abuser, you're essentially trapped," Singas said. "Domestic violence victims often report when they're able to leave the house or they can go to work under normal circumstances and can confide in a coworker."

New York's "PAUSE" order, which expires May 28, does not require people to stay at home, but closes most businesses and prohibits non-essential gatherings of any size, thereby effectively forcing people to be in their homes in many cases.

What remains concerning for Singas is that even with the increase in reports, there are more women who likely are unable to call.

Singas also said that the increase in calls has not translated into an increase in cases.

A call to a resource center or hotline does not translate into a case, which means that Singas' office is investigating and there is a possibility that criminal charges will be filed. Calls to resource centers or hotlines can lead to cases following an investigation, but that depends on many factors.

"For me, it made sense knowing what I know about domestic violence victims and about the power dynamics of intimate violence that we would have fewer cases because women would be reluctant to pursue a criminal investigation and criminal prosecution in the circumstances they're in now," Singas said.

"In normal situations, if a woman feels like her life is in danger or if she just feels she has to get out of a situation, then she does that. When she goes to work she would have already talked to a counselor, they would have come up with an escape plan. She would be able to confide in a friend or a relative or coworker that would help her execute her removal from that situation," Singas said. "All of those avenues are much more limited now."

Gov. Cuomo's office launched a task force last week to find "innovative solutions to this crisis." Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor, and the New York State Council on Women and Girls, announced the creation of the unit and said they will present recommendations to Cuomo by Thursday.

"During these unprecedented times, New York has led the way in providing survivors of domestic violence access to the critical services they need to get help," DeRosa said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the reality is that we are still seeing an increase in the number of reported cases of domestic violence across NY as this pandemic continues - we need to do more to help women who are stuck in dangerous situations. I am proud to be working with this diverse task force to develop recommendations for the Governor so we can creatively address [domestic violence]."

The problem is by no means limited to New York. The United Nations Population Fund predicted there could be 31 million new cases of domestic violence globally if the coronavirus lockdowns continue for six more months, according to Newsweek.

As more people start to emerge from their homes, both Singas and Scott said that they hope more victims will come forward.

However, the trauma of being trapped with an abuser by no means will go away quickly, it at all.

"When the abuse stops, the trauma and mental effect does not always stop," Scott said.

If you are a victim of domestic violence, you can call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto or text LOVEIS to 22522. The Safe Center also has a 24/7 hotline that can be reached at 516-542-0404.

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