Coronavirus measures present challenges for victims of domestic violence
Measures taken to stem the spread of the coronavirus can hit victims of domestic violence especially hard. Advocates emphasize that help is still available.
Delawareans are ordered to stay home from all but essential work and errands — but for many victims of domestic violence, home is not safe.
“There’s this painful irony with the virus,” said Sue Ryan, executive director of the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “The health world is saying you have to stay at home— and that’s true for the virus— but the home is not the safest place for every person, because of violence and threats that exist in some homes.”
People’s Place, an organization that runs domestic violence shelters in Kent and Sussex Counties, has seen a significant increase in calls to its hotlines during the COVID-19 crisis, says associate director Blanche Creech.
Creech says the Governor’s stay-at-home order means many victims may not be getting any reprieve from their abusers.
“With an abuser, COVID-19 can be one more power and control tactic,” she said. “In other words, 'You're not going to the store because of COVID-19.' There can be a real trapped quality for a domestic violence victim living with the domestic violence abuser.”
And being trapped at home with an abuser can make seeking help more difficult.
“You may not have access to make a phone call, or the abuser may listen to the phone call or stop the phone call,” said Creech. “Maybe they can go to the restroom and do a quick text — but even that can be a problem for some people based on all the technology abusers have regarding phones.”
Creech says People’s Place is screening residents at its domestic violence shelters for symptoms of the virus, and has suspended normal discharge timelines for the duration fo the outbreak. When its shelters are full, People’s Place can pay for victims to stay in hotels, but Creech says she expects her organization’s funding for that use to run out before the end of the COVID-19 crisis.
CHILD, Inc. is another organization that offers domestic violence-related services in Delaware, including emergency shelters.
Deianna Tyree, director of domestic violence at CHILD, Inc., says the organization is enforcing social distancing in those facilities.
“We are no longer having people from different families share rooms, which means there can be less people in the house,” she said. “People in shelter have typically enjoyed communal meals— it’s fun for them— but we’re asking people to cook and to clean separately so that there’s just not as many bodies there together.”
Tyree says the social distancing policies have resulted in decreased shelter capacity for the organization overall, and that CHILD, Inc.’s shelters are currently full. But like People's Place, CHILD, Inc. has what Tyree refers to as a “small fund” for sheltering clients in motels, which she also predicts will eventually run out.
The 24/7 domestic violence hotline CHILD, Inc. runs for New Castle County has not seen an increase in call volume during the virus outbreak, Tyree says, but people are talking with hotline operators longer.
“They are specifically asking about food— they need access to food, diapers, gift cards for gas. So there’s those kinds of tangible things, but also they want to feel connection,” said Tyree. “They are talking at more length about what is happening in their relationships. Is there any utility in calling the police? They have heard that the courthouses are closed— and so how can a person get a PFA [Protection From Abuse order] if that’s what they need? Those conversations take a long time.”
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, CHILD, Inc. has seen an increase in victims seeking help filing Protection From Abuse (PFA) petitions in Family Court, Tyree says.
Delaware’s court facilities are largely closed due to the coronavirus, but PFA petitions are being accepted by email, mail or physical dropboxes at the courthouses.
Addie Asay, director of legal affairs at Delaware’s Family Court, says ex parte, or emergency, petitions filed before 4 p.m. are still processed the day they are received.
“That’s definitely what we want people to know,” said Asay. “The emergencies are still being handled the same day.”
Asay says PFA hearings are being held mostly by phone, but Family Court is working with the domestic violence advocate and legal community to evaluate other options, such as Zoom video-conferencing.
“As this continues to evolve, the court is continuing to look at how to make the process better, and we’re doing that in concert with the stakeholders.”
Laura Graham, deputy director of Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. (CLASI), says the number of PFA petitioners referred to her organization for representation has declined, in particular in Kent and Sussex Counties.
“We are concerned, especially for the most vulnerable folks who live in rural areas and/or are limited English proficient, that people incorrectly assume that the Court is no longer processing PFA petitions and holding the hearings,” Graham said in an email. “And that victims … may not be able to freely or privately reach out for help because they are sheltering in place with their abusive family member.
Janine Howard-O'Rangers, executive director of Delaware Volunteer Legal Services, Inc. holds the same concerns.
“We are, however, still assisting as many individuals as we can and have a number of volunteer attorneys still helping as well,” she wrote in an email.
Sue Ryan of the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence says the Coalition is working with several nonprofits to make a proposal to state legislators around funding for domestic violence services.
“There are so many more expenses— just access to food, and access to resources. The frontline staff are putting in significant hours, there will be overtime costs— there’s just a need for additional funding.”
It is unclear when such a proposal could be addressed, as the General Assembly has postponed legislative session “until further notice” in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Victims of domestic violence can seek help at the following 24-hour hotlines:
CHILD Inc.’s Domestic Violence Program (New Castle County): 302-762-6110
The SAFE Program at People’s Place II (Kent & Sussex Counties): 302-422-8058
Abriendo Puertas Bilingual Hotline (Sussex County): 302-745-9874