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In an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, many Idahoans started avoiding public spaces and working remotely throughout the Treasure Valley. To some, particularly those in abusive relationships, this isn’t always the safest option; home just might be more dangerous than the outside world.

Kelly Miller, executive director of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, said while the novel coronavirus isn’t a cause for domestic or sexual violence, health and economic challenges can add to the pressures already facing survivors, who now must be in close proximity to their abuser, further compromising their personal welfare.

“And anyone who is experiencing violence may be experiencing increased isolation due to the national pandemic,” Miller added. “Our response to COVID-19 must include taking care of each other and reaching out to make sure that everyone has the support they need and if they feel safe at home.”

During a national health crisis, abusive partners may withhold necessary items — such as food, money, hand sanitizer or disinfectants — threaten to cancel insurance or prevent survivors from seeking medical attention if they need it, according to the National Hotline for Domestic Violence.

Travel restrictions may impact one’s ability to escape the situation, and survivors might fear entering shelter because they are afraid to be in close quarters with groups of people, especially if they have children.

The current statewide and national demands for self-isolation and social distancing also could cause an abuser, who relies on the power and control they have over a victim (child, elder or intimate partner), to feel more justified in their actions, prompting possible escalation.

“The situation is so much more volatile,” said Jeannie Strohmeyer, program manager at the Nampa Family Justice Center. “We have people where work is their safe place, and now, that’s not available to them. Now, they’re under constant surveillance. … There is a high number of victims in our community being impacted by this. People need to be aware that this is happening. You may consider your home a safe haven, but for your neighbor, it could be their most dangerous place.”

The National Coalition Against Dating Violence reports nearly 30% of Idaho women will experience physical violence, sexual assault and/or stalking by an intimate partner. Nationally, about 25% of women, or one in four, will be a victim of this type of abuse in their lifetime; for men, it’s one in 10. Strohmeyer said these statistics align with what the Family Justice Center is seeing each day in the area.

Strohmeyer said people often stay in abusive relationships because of fear, financial dependence and a lack of resources, such as housing options or child care. And while many wish they could leave their abuser, they remain due to a variety of these factors, which could include anxiety over COVID-19. In some cases, she added, victims even believe the abuse is their fault.

“The abuser thinks they own, possess or have the right to do whatever they want with the victim, and that’s not changing. Abusers know exactly what they are doing and are very careful about it,” Strohmeyer said. “So, what we have to is recognize that, and say, ‘Now what? How do we handle this? How can we come to them?’”

The Boise-based Idaho Coalition has provided guidance to the state’s domestic and sexual violence organizations, Miller said, such as “shifting to mobile advocacy, where advocates provide safety planning and support to anyone who impacted by domestic or sexual violence via video conferencing or on the phone, or going to where the survivor is and reducing the number of survivors in the agency.”

Similar tactics are being utilized at the Family Justice Center to make services more available via various technologies, such as Facebook Messenger, Strohmeyer said. Although, the organization, located at 1305 Third St. S. in Nampa, remains open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Strohmeyer added people in abusive situations need to be cautious and make sure their phone, computer, social media or email isn’t being monitored by the abuser — although, it could be very likely.

The Idaho Coalition is encouraging domestic and sexual violence programs to provide flexible funding for survivors to help meet economic needs, Miller said, like food or hotel vouchers to reduce the number of women and children in shelters and/or transitional housing during this time.

Strohmeyer said if the situation escalates and someone in an abusive situation has to leave their home immediately, the Family Justice Center is there to help figure out next steps for them and any possible children or older relatives involved.

“If they want to run and come get help, we can help them,” Strohmeyer said. “We will work and do our very best to provide that safe place. … We are here for that reason.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP

If possible, community members are asked to provide any assistance, financial or otherwise, to these types of organizations to help meet survivors’ needs as well, Miller said.

Strohmeyer said currently, the Nampa Family Justice Center is seeking hygiene products, such as toilet paper, wet wipes, diapers, and over-the-counter medications due to an increased demand and recent scarcity at Treasure Valley stores. The organization carries a variety of these supplies and others in an onsite storage room for victims and their children, and it relies on donations throughout the year to keep that room stocked, especially now.

“Domestic and sexual violence programs need the support from our communities to be sure vulnerable survivors — pregnant, with an underlying condition or older — never have to make a choice between their health and safety,” Miller said.

Miller said it is too early to know the impact of COVID-19 on incidents of domestic and sexual violence in Idaho, or if there’s a surge of people seeking services. Although, she added, it wouldn’t be surprising if this was the case, since “isolation can certainly increase the risk of anyone who is in an abusive relationship.”

Strohmeyer said in the past couple of weeks, there has been a noticeable decrease of people, who often visit during a work or lunch break, coming into the Family Justice Center, which offers a variety of services such as counseling, safety planning and filing protection orders. The volume of calls the organization receives also is lower.

“Clearly this has affected the people we are serving,” Strohmeyer added. “People don’t have as easy of an access to our services. … But we will continue to remain open for them. We absolutely care, we are here to help, and we will treat them with the value and respect they deserve.”

Miller said anyone experiencing domestic or sexual violence is encouraged to reach out to a friend, co-worker or family member, who could check in with the person about their safety and support needs, if they have to self-isolate at home. The national hotlines are another form of support, she added.

Family members, friends and neighbors of someone they know or suspect is experiencing violence should offer to help in whatever way they can to disrupt the isolation as well, both Miller and Strohmeyer said. This could include reading a book via video to children, having a virtual play or coffee date, and walking outside while keeping a safe distance apart.

”People who cause harm use the isolation to control someone. Let’s not let the social distancing we are creating to flatten the curve of the (coronavirus) create this isolation for survivors,” Miller said. “Reach out to anyone you know who might be in an abusive relationship — find creative ways to connect, (and) encourage them to contact a national helpline or local program.”

COMMUNITY RESOURCES

NATIONAL RESOURCES

  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233 (call), 800-787-3224 (text). Online advocacy is available at thehotline.org.
  • The National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673. Online advocacy is available at hotline.rainn.org/online.
  • The StrongHearts Native Helpline: 844-762-8483. The line specifically for Native American communities is available from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
  • The Trans LifeLine: 877-565-8860. The line specifically for transgender people is available from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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