Pandemic brings new challenges to combating growing domestic violence

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month — an opportunity to examine a problem that affects one in three women and one in four men at some point their lives.

It’s also an opportunity to look deeply into what the phrase “domestic violence” means, especially during a pandemic.

Will Averill, director of communications at The Willow Domestic Violence Center, said when many think of domestic violence, they associate it with a private or family matter. But Averill emphasized that discussions about domestic violence shouldn’t “be solely confined to the survivor and/or their family.”

“Domestic violence affects extended family, social circles, communities, cities and has profound effects nationally in terms of the expenses and the impact it has on emergency response,” Averill said. “At any (point) in domestic violence, there can be many emergency services that are called into play such as law enforcement, ambulance services, legal services and hospitals. These things are not just private, family issues.”

Domestic violence does not come in one form, Averill said. It can include isolating survivors from their social lives; withholding access to jobs and money; verbal abuse; threats; using religion to keep survivors from leaving; using privilege to maintain control; and more.

Cori Green, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) coordinator at LMH Health, said that when the COVID-19 pandemic began and stay-at-home orders were implemented, SANE staff saw hardly any patients.

“Typically, with sexual assault, we see more cases than ever in the spring,” she said. “We have seen a lot fewer cases compared to what we are used to, and though it may appear good that cases are fewer, that isn’t exactly the case.”

Green said one reason cases are lower is that those who need help aren’t able to leave their homes to seek it. On top of this, facilities are operating with smaller capacities because of COVID-19, leaving some people unable to find open shelters.

“The cases we have seen since March have been much more complicated,” Green said. “They have not been easy discharge planning situations in terms of shelter. We have had to contact hotels for shelter and go beyond Lawrence to find housing. These recent cases have been more domestic, and we are having to get more creative with the discharge.”

Green said with many people sheltering at home, the nurse examiners are having to think of plans with their patients who live with someone who can become violent. For patients in these situations, they are proactively planning for what happens if and when the patient decides to leave.

“It is hard to watch people suffer,” Green said. “While studies are showing us that there is an increase in intimate partner violence, we cannot definitively speak to that because our numbers do not reflect this. However, it’s possible we aren’t seeing these patients because they can’t leave their situations.

“There is a silent pandemic going on, and we need to talk about these things,” she said. “COVID-19 is causing many more secondary symptoms to people in the community then some realize. COVID-19 has more symptoms than an X-ray showing opaque lungs.”

Averill and Green agreed that resources in the community can often be low even in normal circumstances. During circumstances like the pandemic where survivors are being heavily monitored, having resources available is paramount in helping a survivor get away and stay away.

“These are difficulties we face in the normal flow of society,” Averill said. “Under a pandemic, (resource shortages) have been exacerbated, especially in isolation, which makes it harder for people to access help when they are with their abuser 24/7. This can escalate danger significantly and make talking on the phone nearly impossible. As a community, we need to be safe, but it does reduce our capacity. We are having to think of alternative solutions to help them survive.”

Because of the lack of resources right now, one of the best ways to help the community and the survivors is through donations of money and necessary supplies.

“We have so many wonderful community partners that we work with regularly and we need the community’s help to band together during these times,” Green said. “I continue to tell people one of the best ways to help is to donate. If you can give funds, donate money. If you cannot give money, donate hygiene supplies and necessary items to nonprofit organizations like the Willow.”

Averil said it’s vital to help raise awareness about domestic violence and make it clear it’s a public matter. A serious domestic violence event occurs once every 21 minutes in Kansas, and it’s critical that people are conscious of the gravity of the situation, he said.

“It is important to make people aware,” Averill said. “The more information people have about healthy and unhealthy relationships, the better off we will be at keeping people safe, not just this month, but every month.”


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