Story by: Theresa Clift

Michele had a sinking feeling. She was on a plane to San Diego, headed to a wedding on March 7, and noticed a girl near her kept coughing. The new coronavirus had not yet widely spread in California, but she worried, not just about becoming sick, but what it would mean for her.

By the time she returned to Sacramento a few days later, Michele was more sick than she had ever been.

Michele, who requested her last name not be published to protect her identity but agreed to be photographed, said she couldn’t get a coronavirus test, even though at age 67 she is in a high risk group. Still, her doctor told her on a video call she likely had contracted COVID-19.

And so she quarantined in her Carmichael apartment with her husband of nearly five years. He had physically abused her in the past, Michele later told sheriff’s deputies, and was working from home. After a couple weeks, tensions had risen to a boiling point. She told him she wanted a divorce.

“I think he was so tired of having to take care of me for so long and I kept saying, ‘What is wrong with you? I’m sick,’” Michele said.

One day, during an argument, Michelle said her husband physically assaulted her, choking her and throwing her to the ground, according to a statement Michele made to sheriff’s deputies. She said her husband was removed by deputies and was brought back about four hours later. Her husband has not been charged with a crime.

“All I could do was go upstairs, push the dresser in front of the door, and pray,” Michele said.

She was stuck at home but not sheltered.

Domestic violence survivors reporting abuse since the shelter-in-place order more than two months ago appear to be rising. Attorneys with the Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center filed 72 temporary restraining orders for victims in April – three times the amount they filed in April 2019.

The sharp increase could be an indicator that domestic violence in Sacramento has risen during the coronavirus crisis, mirroring a worldwide trend, said Faith Whitmore, the center’s CEO.

“People are staying in place with their abusers and the tensions just rise,” Whitmore said. “At least when people were going to work, there was a relief when the person wasn’t in the house. Now they can’t go stay with family and friends, the shelters are full, a lot of their options aren’t there.”

Data for restraining orders are not available, Sacramento court officials said, so whether the overall number of orders filed in Sacramento County Superior Court has risen amid the virus is unclear. In addition, services normally available to help people fill out paperwork at the courthouse were shut down during the month of April, which could have driven more people to the justice center and other nonprofits and factor into the increase.

Still, the number of victims who came to the center and the stories they shared, like Michele’s, illustrate the severity of the issue in the Sacramento area, Whitmore said.

Because Michele was likely infected with the highly contagious virus, she couldn’t stay with friends or family, amplifying feelings of isolation that domestic violence victims often experience.

“I couldn’t expose my family, my mom is 87,” Michele said. “I had to keep all my friends away. My best friend works at the airport, another one is a cop. I said, ‘You guys can’t come around me.’”

A friend gave her the phone number to the Family Justice Center, and she called. Hours later, the center organized for someone to come to the house and serve the husband with restraining order papers, and he left.

“I felt so much relief,” Michele said. “So much relief that there’s someone that cares on this planet.”

FUNDING FOR SUPPORT DECLINES

My Sister’s House, which specializes in helping Asian and Pacific Islander survivors, said some callers have been experiencing assault and harassment that’s tinged with racism, particularly targeting Asians. The first reported cases of the virus were in Wuhan, China.

“We had a caller and a staff member could hear in the background the abuser basically saying, ‘No one is going to help you because you’re Asian’,” Guanzon Valmores said.

My Sister’s House typically files about four temporary restraining orders per month, said executive director Nilda Guanzon Valmores. After the stay-at-home orders began, it tripled to 12. The incidents described in the orders are much more intense than they were before the crisis, Guanzon Valmores said.

The nonprofit, based on Freeport Boulevard, also saw calls to its help line spike from 221 in February to 326 in March, when the stay-at-home order began. In April, calls went back down to 205.

Calls to WEAVE, the county’s largest domestic violence services provider, are down from last April, but the intensity is up, said CEO Beth Hassett.

“Pretty much everyone is in acute danger and in need of safety planning,” Hassett said.

The nonprofit on March 17 launched an online chat feature, to allow victims who are in physical proximity to their abusers to reach out more discretely, Hassett said. So far, 217 have done so.

While they try to serve the influx in victims, local organizations are struggling with less funding.

WEAVE had to close its two thrift stores, which produce the revenue it relies on to feed and shelter more than 60 victims. The Family Justice Center likely will have to cancel its big annual fall fundraiser, Whitmore said. My Sister’s House had to cancel its fashion show and gala fundraisers that take place every spring.

“We just haven’t had a lot of time to breathe and figure out what our needs are,” Guanzon Valmores said. To save money, the nonprofit cut the number of days the office was cleaned, but will now have to restore it to daily to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among staff.

My Sister’s House, the Family Justice Center and WEAVE were approved recently for the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but are still facing budget shortfalls.

STIMULUS MONEY FOR NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS

The Sacramento City Council last month approved $2 million in federal coronavirus stimulus funds to help local nonprofits serve domestic violence victims in Sacramento, proposed by Councilman Eric Guerra.

The spike in domestic violence during the stay-at-home order is similar to the one Guerra experienced as a child growing up in a family of seasonal farm workers in Yolo County during the winter, when work dwindled.

“Alcoholism and domestic violence was prevalent and it wasn’t just in my household,” Guerra said. “It was a common thing, unfortunately, that many of the kids I grew up with would experience.”

City Councilman Larry Carr said the issue is increasing in his district, which includes Meadowview and other south Sacramento neighborhoods.

“The number one call for service in District 8 is domestic violence,” Carr said. “There was a lot of domestic violence before the virus and there’s even more now … it is really impacting our community.”

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby suggested the city explore new non-traditional ways to help, pointing to a recent city of Chicago partnership with popular home rental company Airbnb that helps connect victims with places to stay.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg urged the county, which received $181 million in CARES Act funds, to at least match the city’s $2 million toward domestic violence, but preferably allocate even more.

Whitmore, Guanzon Valmores and Hassett agree there will likely be another increase of victims reaching out to their organizations when the stay-at-home orders are removed.

“We’re expecting a big surge once these orders are lifted and people can get out more,” Whitmore said.

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