CHICAGO — The woman dialed the hotline from her car. Her partner was laid off from his job after the coronavirus outbreak hit the United States, she told the counselor, who listened from a basement call center in Chicago. He had become more tense and violent than ever. Please help.
Americans have been cooped up at home for months to slow the spread of the coronavirus, many of them living in small spaces, reeling from sudden job losses and financial worries. Children are home from school in every state in the country.
That confinement has led to another spiraling crisis: Doctors and advocates for victims are seeing signs of an increase in violence at home. They are hearing accounts of people lashing out, particularly at women and children.
“No one can leave,” Kim Foxx, the chief prosecutor in Chicago, said in an interview. “You’re literally mandating that people who probably should not be together in the same space stay.”
The problems have only deepened since stay-at-home orders were first imposed.
In Chicago, the number of people seeking help has increased significantly in recent weeks. During the first week of March, 383 people called a domestic violence hotline in the city. By the end of April, the weekly number had soared to 549.
Text messages to the hotline have also skyrocketed, suggesting that victims have little physical distance from their abusers and find texting is safer than calling.
The Chicago Police Department said that domestic-violence related calls increased 12% during a period from the start of the year through mid-April, compared with the same time period in 2019. In other cities, including Los Angeles and New York, police have seen a drop in calls, but the authorities have said they believed that victims were in such close quarters with their abusers that they were unable to call the police.
Amanda Pyron, the executive director of The Network, an advocacy organization in Chicago, said that many callers to the domestic violence hotline have requested shelter. Last month, in an effort to address the crisis, Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago announced that a new city partnership with Airbnb would provide hotel rooms to people who need to flee a violent situation.
But many other callers to the hotline in Chicago, which takes calls from across Illinois, have been from victims who are waiting out the coronavirus stay-at-home orders, reasoning that leaving at this time is riskier than ever. Callers have asked for help on how to keep their partners calm, how to secretly save money, how to develop code words with children that will tell them that they need to call 911.
Some victims of violence are anticipating that stay-at-home orders will be lifted before long, and are making plans for when that day will come.
“The pandemic has put the pressure on,” Pyron said. “No one can go stay somewhere for a few days, have family come over, have the kids go stay with grandparents. Those safety supports aren’t accessible in a meaningful way.”
Lightfoot unveiled a five-phase plan last week for reopening the city, a schedule with strict bench marks before restrictions on businesses, lakefront parks and public services can be lifted. Chicago has been hard hit by coronavirus, which has so far sickened more than 1.4 million people in the United States and killed more than 85,000.
One woman who recently left her abusive partner, who asked that her name not be published out of concern that he might retaliate, said that she lost her job because of the coronavirus, making it more difficult to live on her own.
In an interview, she said that she had no intention of returning to her former husband, who on one occasion beat her so badly that she was hospitalized, and that she was relying on family and friends to help. “It’s terrible for women who are living with their abusers right now,” she said. “It’s hard to walk out during normal times.”
Many shelters, citing worries over the spread of the virus inside their facilities, have stopped accepting newcomers.
In Evanston, Illinois, a YWCA shelter for weeks remained open to the women and children who were there before the outbreak, but no new families were being allowed inside. The shelter’s hotline was closed down. Only one staff member was working at a time.
But the administrators of the shelter still worried about the 32 families inside. If one of those women or children contracted the coronavirus, there would be no way to isolate them. The risk of transmission loomed.
Last month, the administrators of the shelter made a difficult choice: They closed it entirely, moving families to hotels instead.
They reopened their hotline, and so far, few callers have requested immediate shelter.
“What they’re seeking from the counselors is support in how to keep things at peace at home, figuring out what options they have if they absolutely have to leave the house,” said Sandy Williams, the director of the shelter.
The Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline is still operating in the basement of a building in downtown Chicago. Callers have needed to vent, saying that stress at home has increased lately, said Alondra Montes, the hotline’s director.
In the beginning of the stay-at-home restrictions in March, they echoed many of the same questions. If I go to a shelter, will I be forced to stay there indefinitely, under rules from elected officials? Am I allowed to travel out of the city or state?
Many have asked: Which is safer, staying at home with my abuser, or going to a shelter?
“You have health issues, work issues, financial issues, and then everybody is at home on top of each other,” said Jenelle Pedroza, a social worker at Legal Aid Chicago, who added that children were especially at risk at times like these.
“We frequently hear clients talk about doing whatever they can to placate their partner,” she said. “More kids are going to be exposed to domestic violence because they’re home and they’ll experience the tension and the residual violence.”
There have also been alarming effects on children. In April, phone calls and texts to the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline increased 17% over the same period last year, according to a spokeswoman, Rebecca Cooper.
One hotline counselor received a call from the sibling of a health care worker who had left her small children home with her boyfriend, since she had no other child care options.
Both children had physical signs of abuse after being left in the boyfriend’s care, the sibling told the counselor, and the local child protection agency did not intervene.
Many doctors, already overwhelmed with treating the coronavirus, are now seeing an increase in children with telltale injuries from abuse.
Cook Children’s Medical Center, a hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, saw seven cases of child abuse in a five-day stretch in March, a spike that medical personnel suspected was connected to the outbreak.
Dr. Jamye Coffman, the medical director at the Center for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect in Fort Worth, which is part of Cook Children’s, said that during the recession, pediatricians saw a rise in serious physical abuse, and she worried that the same phenomenon was beginning to occur.
“The other thing I’m worried about is that nobody’s watching kids except the families,” she said, noting that teachers are frequently the people who call child services to report abuse. “There may be abuse that hasn’t been reported because nobody knows that it’s happening.”
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