As North Carolina and many other states across the country are living under mandated shelter-in-place orders, social distancing is an important public health strategy that is designed to protect the population from further spread of the COVID-19 virus.

However, just as most medicines designed to treat health-related concerns carry some risks of side effects, so too does social distancing carry an unintended side effect: a greater risk of domestic violence.

Domestic violence advocates locally and across the country are bracing for a spike in victims needing help. There are many factors associated with the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing that contribute to this increased risk. These include isolation, economic stressors for those who lose their jobs and the tensions that can arise when people in unsafe relationships are required to stay in close quarters for extended periods of time.

As is indicated in the theme of the public awareness campaign we recently launched with a network of community partners: Abuse is never OK (www.neverokayguilford.org). Isolation, financial troubles and stress are no excuses for violence of any kind, including physical, sexual, emotional and verbal abuse.

However, the isolation that is a byproduct of social distancing measures is especially dangerous for victims of domestic violence because they may be cut off from their normal support systems. Abusive partners carry out their abuse as a means of having control over their partners, and isolation can be a powerful abuse tactic that puts victims at greater risk. Social distancing-related isolation also increases the risk of harm because victims may not be able to tell others — such as friends and coworkers they might normally have chances to see on a regular basis — what is happening since they are almost always around their abusive partners.

Social distancing mandates and business closures also may lead victims to be wary about reaching out for help. They may falsely assume that organizations that offer supportive resources are closed. However, help remains available from local and national resources even throughout this crisis.

For example, the Guilford County Family Justice Center (336-641-7233) continues to operate to coordinate the emergency and safety needs of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse and child maltreatment. Services provided at the center by local agencies include safety planning, filing for an emergency protective order, legal consultation and talking with law enforcement, to name a few. In addition, Family Service of the Piedmont continues to offer a 24-hour crisis hotline, 336-273-7273. As always, in an immediate crisis, a victim or bystander can call 9-1-1.

All community members play an important role in helping to identify and support those who are at risk for domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as at all other times. Below are some ways that anyone can get involved:

  • Stay socially connected even while physical distance is required. Check in on your friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors. Use text messages, emails, phone calls, virtual meetings or any other available means to stay in touch with others. Staying socially connected is important for many reasons — including our own well-being, as a way to buffer against stress, and to offer tangible support. However, during this time of social distancing, these connections also can provide a critical lifeline for those at risk for abuse.
  • Understand the common dynamics of abusive relationships. We’ve created some basic resources through the Abuse Is Never Okay campaign: https://www.neverokayguilford.org/understandingabuse. Learning to recognize red flags will help you feel more confident about offering support if someone you know is facing abuse.
  • Share information with loved ones and neighbors about the resources available. Help spread the word widely in our community about local resources that offer support, including the Guilford County Family Justice Center and Family Service of the Piedmont’s 24/7 crisis hotline.
  • Provide support to local organizations that serve victims of abuse. Due to the economic downturn associated with the coronavirus, funding and donations to these critical support organizations may go down. Higher numbers of people seeking services also means that these organizations may need additional resources to help victims take steps toward safety, such as gas cards, grocery store gift cards, and clothing.

As long as social distancing mandates remain in place, there will be an elevated risk for domestic violence. Domestic violence is often viewed as a private, family matter. However, abuse affects the whole community, and this is especially true during a time when community resources are already stretched to the limit.

Let us work together to create a safer community for all by staying connected with our loved ones and neighbors, sharing a united message that abuse is never OK, and showing our support for helpers that are working on the frontlines to support victims of abuse each and every day.

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