Story By: Olivia Heersink
As the state reopens, victim advocacy groups anticipate a surge of abuse-related calls.
This would be a reversal of what many organizations in the Treasure Valley saw during the duration of Gov. Brad Little’s stay-home order, first issued on March 25. Call numbers dropped amid the order, catching several advocates off guard.
“People just don’t stop abusing,” said Jeannie Strohmeyer, program manager at the Nampa Family Justice Center. “We’re not seeing the people we should, and that’s concerning.”
Strohmeyer said economic hardships and health concerns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic can make an already stressful home environment even more volatile. This might cause an abuser to lash out more regularly at a victim — which could be a child, elder parent and/or intimate partner — or escalate their behavior, going from emotional abuse to physical violence.
Since many workplaces temporarily closed and schools switched to remote learning, Strohmeyer said the people who typically report any suspected domestic violence or child abuse — such as a coworker or teacher — no longer have eyes on these individuals, allowing an abuser’s actions to go unnoticed and unchecked. People in the community might not be aware of the center’s existence or know what services are provided there, she added.
Strohmeyer said the center is already seeing a slight uptick in calls, but the call volume is still notably less than what the staff was experiencing at this point last year. The organization serves more than 6,000 victims each year.
“It is profound what is happening in the home because of all of these stresses — one on top of another, on top of another,” Strohmeyer said. “It’s like a pressure cooker, and we fully expect our numbers to explode.”
Paige Dinger, executive director of Faces of Hope, said the Boise-based nonprofit also saw a decline in abuse-related calls after March 25, as well as an overall decrease in-person visits. But the number of people seeking civil protection orders, on the other hand, did see a notable increase during the stay-home order.
Dinger said Faces of Hope can help someone file a protection order, a service commonly provided at a county courthouse. Once the order is filed, victims are able to attend any hearings via their smartphone or computer.
Since many people worry their phone or computer is being monitored by their abuser, Dinger said Faces also is providing free smartphones to victims of domestic violence, so they’ll be able to have internet access and connect with family members, friends and even the nonprofit’s trauma-informed counselors.
“We’re prepared to help people in any way that we can,” Dinger said. “And if there’s a surge, which we anticipate there will be, we’re ready.”
Like Strohmeyer and Dinger, Kelly Miller, executive director of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic violence, said her organization has seen a decrease in calls since the governor’s order went into effect.
Miller compared the situation to those in other states, such as Washington, which saw outbreaks of COVID-19 before Idaho did. Across the country, advocates are seeing fewer people reach out for help, not because domestic violence has stopped, but because victims don’t have a safe, private way to ask for help.
Because domestic violence is still ongoing, Miller said she expects to see a spike in calls once social distancing measures are eased. What’s more, stress from the financial hardship and job loss brought on by the virus probably aren’t helping abusive situations either.
“None of those cause domestic violence on their own, but it certainly can increase the stress level on the household,” Miller said.
And when people are reaching out, Miller said their situation is often more dire, and the injuries they have sustained may be more serious.
“So it could be (that) people are waiting until the very last minute,” Miller added.
‘WE ARE STILL HERE’
Much like the victims advocacy groups, law enforcement agencies in the Treasure Valley also saw a decrease in abuse-related calls. Although, some saw little to no change at all.
“The numbers continue to be comparable to past years and months,” Haley Williams, spokeswoman for the Boise Police Department, wrote Wednesday in an email to the Idaho Press. “We do recognize that there is a possibility for an unreported increase and we are remaining in close contact with our partners to provide support where ever possible.”
Between January and March of 2019, the Ada County Sheriff’s Office received 113 domestic violence calls, according to office spokesman Patrick Orr. The agency received 114 calls during that same period this year.
In Canyon County, Nampa Police Cpl. Angela Weekes, who works in the Family Justice Center, said the department received fewer calls for child abuse and domestic violence reports in the first few weeks after Little’s stay-home order.
As with the Family Justice Center, Weekes said Nampa police are seeing a slight increase in reports taken by officers since April 8. But levels are nowhere near the normal volume, she added.
Weekes said law enforcement is still conducting welfare checks and making arrests when necessary, despite what an abuser might be telling their victim as a way to further isolate them at home.
“Abusers will use all sorts of tactics to manipulate their partners (such as), ‘If you leave the home, you can’t come back because you’re going to be exposed to COVID-19. You can’t go to the hospital for an injury because you’ll be exposed to COVID-19 and then I’m going to take the kids because you can’t come back and expose them,’” Weekes added. “We are still investigating, we are still enforcing, we are still arresting those who are causing abuse at home. … We are still here for these victims.”
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue said the drop in calls, which his agency also is experiencing, came as a shock to him. Requests to the sheriff’s office for the number of calls received in recent weeks was not immediately provided as of 2:45 p.m. Tuesday.
“With the crisis and the pandemic and the stay-home orders from the governor, I really expected to see an increase in domestic violence cases throughout the county, and we haven’t seen that,” Donahue said. “In fact, we’ve seen the opposite of that.”
‘MAKE THE REPORT’
That narrative — the decrease in calls now and the rush of new cases when social distancing is eased — doesn’t have to play out though, Miller said. She encouraged people who are worried about friends and family members to check in on them. If possible, Miller said, a video call is ideal, because it allows a person to see a friend or family member face to face and see their home to check-in on the situation.
And it’s important to remember advocates for domestic violence or child abuse survivors are still working, even if they’ve changed how they provide their services, Miller said.
“All of those folks are open and they certainly have adapted their service delivery model. … There would be advocates available to help with safety planning,” she said.
People can still reach out, Miller said, and those who have friends or family members in abusive situations should encourage them to connect to an advocacy group. A sentiment echoed by Strohmeyer, who also encourages community members to act as a watchdog for their neighbors.
“You don’t have to see it, you don’t have to know it, nobody has to tell you. But if you suspect abuse, call and make a report, because somebody has to protect these people,” Strohmeyer said. “These traumas impact our communities. … So, if you see something, say something. This is your business — make the report.”