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Behind Closed Doors: Domestic Violence on the Rise During COVID

July 24, 2020 by G.W. Schulz

Communities around the nation and in Oklahoma are seeing increased domestic violence reports

It happened after the 2008 financial crisis when millions of Americans lost their jobs. It happened in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey wrought devastation on the southeastern United States and turned local communities into debris.

And it happens every year during the holidays: Poverty and prolonged family interactions join forces to turn domestic tranquility into resentment, shame, and abuse.

Now experts say it’s happening again during the COVID-19 outbreak. This time, a public-health catastrophe is driving a major economic downturn. The millions of job losses are expected to exceed those of the 2008 financial crisis. Combined with grueling, weeks-long orders to stay at home, advocates and observers fear the worst.

When the news nonprofit Oklahoma Watch began to look at the numbers in early April, it found notable increases in the state’s two biggest cities, Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Oklahoma news station KFOR found similarly troubling numbers when reporters there called the Pottawatomie County sheriff, law enforcers in Oklahoma City, and several police departments in the surrounding area.

The CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline told NBC News that the organization was already receiving calls about victims being threatened with ejection from their homes or being forced to wash their hands until they were “raw and bleeding.” In other cases, abusers are blocking their victims from going to work even where it’s permitted.

When NBC News made its own calls to two-dozen law enforcement agencies requesting data on abuse reports, it found that 18 of the departments had reported a rise in cases and calls that month. Police in Houston reported 300 more calls than the previous month, a 20 percent increase.

“The financial stress alone creates a ticking time bomb for some families with a history of domestic violence,” said one sheriff from South Carolina. “Unfortunately, many of these domestic violence cases occur in front of children, and often the children become victims of abuse and assault as well.” The sheriff reported a 35 percent surge in March cases over February.

Simultaneously, shelters and programs for domestic violence victims are struggling to stay open and maintain enough space for new people in need. NBC contacted charity organizations and found that many of them are suffering revenue losses due to the cancellation of major fundraising events normally scheduled throughout the year.

“We’ve had to substantially adjust the way we go about doing our business,” one shelter director in Tennessee reported. “We’re scrambling around to figure out how to keep people safe, with the idea we could be dealing with people who have a very contagious illness. Hospitals are very important, but we’re a version of that — we have people dealing with significant trauma and they need to have a safe space to go.”

Calls to the shelter’s crisis number have increased by 55 percent in recent weeks.

When CNN sought data from 20 large metro police departments in the United States, nine responded that they’d seen double-digit percentage increases in domestic violence reports and cases over similar previous periods. The list of nine included Oklahoma City. Seattle, Boston, and Portland all reported increases of over 20 percent during March.

“Domestic violence is rooted in power and control, and all of us are feeling a loss of power and control right now,” the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline told CNN. “We’re really bracing for a spike post-Covid-19 – that’s when law enforcement and advocates and courts are going to hear the really, really scary stuff going on behind closed doors.”

A recent policy paper by the Oklahoma Policy Institute says that COVID-19 has undoubtedly led to a jump in the number of domestic violence incidents, but we won’t understand the full scope for months or even years to come.

“When the crisis draws to a close, the damage will be revealed, and domestic violence advocates across the globe are speculating that it will be disastrous,” the institute argued. “Abusers will continue to isolate survivors and exploit the systems that weren’t functioning well before and aren’t likely to function well on the other side of the COVID-19 outbreak unless we radically overhaul these systems.”

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