Story By: Daniel Dassow

When Joanie Stewart heard that Tennessee was issuing a stay-at-home order, she was deeply worried. Gov. Bill Lee called it a “safer-at-home” order, but for the victims of domestic violence, for whom Stewart serves as executive director of the Family Justice Center in Knoxville, the order meant being stuck in the same space as their abuser, and the order felt anything but safe.

“My initial reaction was people are not going to be able to leave to get the help that they need,” Stewart said. “It was scary. It was very scary.”

Stewart’s concerns reflect the increase in calls that Knoxville police have received concerning domestic violence, and they echo those of leaders all across the world, as reports of abuse rise amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The sobering global phenomenon prompted António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, to speak out in a video posted to Twitter, in which he called on governments to make women’s safety a priority in their response to the pandemic.

“We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19, but they can trap women with abusive partners,” Guterres said in the video. “Over the past weeks, as the economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying surge in domestic violence.“

In response to this surge and the new demands of remotely supporting victims of domestic violence, Stewart says that the Family Justice Center is finding more creative ways to connect referrals with vital resources. These include a safety card campaign, where cards that list domestic violence resources are delivered to homes along with food by local pantries.

Another way that the Center has adapted their counseling to be remote is by creating online guidelines for those facing domestic violence while sheltering at home. The guidelines on the website are what Stewart calls a “mish-mash” of safety suggestions that would be tailored to specific contexts in a normal time.

Called “Staying Safe While Staying Home,” the page on the website has a flowery background and describes specific ways to lower the risk of head injury or strangulation while being stuck at home with an abuser.

When the stark guidelines were posted on social media, they came with a trigger warning.

“It’s awful, but it’s information that people need and not only that, we’re really trying to emphasize to anybody who reads this, this is the reality of the situation,” Stewart said. “This is the day-to-day of what it’s like to have to live with someone who is abusing you … yeah, it’s explicit. It’s hard to read.”

In a statement to NBC News, Alejandra Y. Castillo, CEO of YWCA USA, which has a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Knoxville, said that her organization is contending not just with getting information to victims remotely, but with raising enough funds to accommodate the rise in demand for domestic violence resources.

“We are contending with soaring demand in services but at the same time declining resources and financial support,” Castillo said.

For the Family Justice Center, however, the work of connecting individuals to domestic violence resources continues with fewer staff members and with counseling moved online.

In a time of compounding traumas, the staff is encouraged to take their own mental and physical health needs into consideration as they carry out the important work.

“The one thing that seems to be a consistent thought right now is people do need some level of positivity, so stepping away from the constant images of trauma really makes a difference in our day-to-day workplace,” Stewart said.

Centers like the FJC and YWCA can only hope that victims of domestic abuse in the Knoxville area and around the globe are able to step away from the violence they face while being ordered to stay home.

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