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A side effect of coronavirus: More domestic violence and fewer victims seeking help, Maryland experts warn

As the coronavirus outbreak confines more people to their homes, contributes to job losses and causes other financial hardships, it will also spur a rise in domestic violence, experts warn.

“We all should be on high alert for these types of situations,” said Laura Dugan, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland. “It’s been well-documented in China. All of the factors are in place.”

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Advocates and officials from China to Greenland have reported recent increases in domestic violence complaints, and they point to the forced proximity and stress of the coronavirus pandemic as the primary factor.

Baltimore Police have not seen an increase in domestic violence calls, a spokeswoman said. Baltimore-area service providers believe that’s because survivors are confined with their abusers and can’t reach out. They also say confusion about what services are available during this period may be contributing to fewer people coming forward.

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“Anecdotally, whenever you have periods of time when people are together — snowstorms, holidays — you see an uptick in violence.”


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And as coronavirus spreads anxiety among much of Baltimore’s population — about money, about ability to buy food and protect ourselves and loved ones — those worries are particularly acute among the higher-risk population, including people victimized by abusive partners, experts said.

When clients feel they have limited options, they might be more likely to return to an abuser, advocates said. Abusers can also use the situation to manipulate a victim, said Jacqueline Robarge, director of Power Inside, a service provider in Baltimore that works with victims of domestic abuse, as well as those with addiction issues or who are just returning from jail.

“This is a time to exploit. The 'I need you here. Come home,’ can be more appealing to a victim, rather than taking their chances at a shelter," Robarge said.

Though area nonprofit offices have closed to prevent the disease’s spread, services are still available, providers say, and they urge victims to seek help when they are ready, which can be as simple as reaching out to a trusted friend or to one of several area nonprofits that help people leave abusive relationships.

“Our services are still available,” said Amanda Rodriguez, executive director of the nonprofit TurnAround, based in Towson.

TurnAround is receiving fewer calls than normal, Rodriguez said, adding that she believes the need has increased and will continue to increase.

“Anecdotally, whenever you have periods of time when people are together — snowstorms, holidays — you see an uptick in violence,” she said.

TurnAround’s busiest time is usually in January after the holidays are over and an abuser has returned to work and a victim has an opportunity to seek help.

Officials and advocates in locales around the world have pointed to significant increases in domestic violence when coronavirus has led to less mobility and to economic stress. Police in one county in China’s Hubei province saw domestic violence complaints triple in February compared with the previous year, according to a report in Chinese media. In Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, officials halted alcohol sales to combat an increase in domestic violence against children once schools were shut down, The Guardian reported.

Another area of concern, Rodriguez said, is the increase in gun sales during the coronavirus outbreak.

Some clients have expressed confusion about whether the courts are still performing emergency protection orders. They are, although many other court services have been curtailed.

Robarge, the Power Inside director, said she and other providers try to address a wide range of issues to keep their clients safe.

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Robarge said one client worried about how she would get to her regular medical appointments. Would public transportation be safe? Would it continue? Many of her clients don’t have the financial resources to purchase bulk items, she said. Clients living in group homes or shelters worry how they will keep safe if the coronavirus spreads among its population.

Robarge said her organization focuses on basic services, including providing food and rental assistance, but she is anticipating many more complex challenges as the disease spreads and social distancing continues.

Robarge said she also is struggling to keep her clients informed about such a new and dangerous disease. In the past, she said, she and her staff were well-versed in health concerns such as HIV or tuberculosis. But because COVID-19 is still being studied, she’s struggling to answer all her clients’ questions and concerns.

“It’s hard to tell someone what to do when they have to make hard choices,” she said.

As many businesses struggle to balance work with keeping employees safe, so too are many nonprofits as they struggle with the best ways to safely deliver services.

Janice Miller, director of programs and clinical services at House of Ruth Maryland, said the nonprofit’s 23-bed emergency shelter remains open but with added precautions to protect clients and staff.

"I’ve never experienced something like this,” she said in her 30 years of work in the field. The flu or chickenpox didn’t affect residents, their children and staff as drastically as COVID-19 threatens to do, she said.

Miller said the shelter has not had anyone test positive for COVID-19, but staff members there are preparing for when that could happen.

“Some of the same precautions are very helpful in trying to slow the spread of this disease,” such as extra cleaning and emphasizing hand-washing, “but there is only so much we can do.”

Miller said staff members have sought out additional personal protective equipment, and the shelter has stopped doubling up individuals in rooms. Each of the 23 bedrooms has its own bathroom.

Like so many people in search of toilet paper and cleaning products, she said, staff members have worked hard to stay stocked up on supplies. Still, they haven’t been able to restock hand sanitizer.

Miller said the House of Ruth continues to provide counseling and safety planning services, but it has been forced to shut down some other services, such as the Ruth’s Closet boutique that sells used clothing.

Miller also worried about the ability of smaller nonprofits to continue providing needed care in the face of this challenge.

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“I think it’s difficult for programs to weather this crisis because if you only have a staff that’s a handful of people, then you aren’t going to have the staffing to maintain the program” or get the additional resources to operate safely, she said.

“Being a larger program, we are still struggling," Miller said.

But all the advocates advise anyone who is experiencing domestic violence to seek help.

“A general first step would be to reach out to a safe person,” Dugan suggested. That could be a friend or a family member, she said.

While it might be difficult for a victim to distance themselves from an abuser, she suggested taking a walk or attempting to make a phone call from a bathroom, where they might not draw attention. She also said “bystanders” can be proactive, and call their friends or family members if they are concerned.

“The quicker [victims] break their isolation, the better they will be,” Dugan said.

The House of Ruth’s 24-hour hotline is 410-889-RUTH (7884). Turn Around’s 24-hour hotline is 443-279-0379. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-SAFE (7233).

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