People experiencing domestic violence found themselves isolated in startling new ways during the pandemic, while the organizations dedicated to serving them raced to assist them in a world that required distance.
In the early months of quarantine, hotlines through which people seek help were troublingly silent. The pandemic didn’t stop domestic violence, but it did make it more dangerous to reach out for help.
The pandemic, however, did encourage local organizations that serve individuals experiencing abuse in the city and county to collaborate with institutions they might not ordinarily, to update their methods of outreach and to think of new ways to make their services and support accessible. Most organizations plan to keep these innovations even in a post-pandemic world.
Even as more of the population becomes vaccinated, domestic violence survivors have a long road ahead of them.
“We are still seeing victims and survivors who are being very, very abused and, unfortunately the prediction globally is that this increase will continue for the next year to two years even post-pandemic,” said Nicole Molinaro, president and CEO of the Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.
“Because of the added stress and change, it’s opened up a Pandora's box.”
Domestic violence in a crisis
During times of crisis and natural disasters, rates of domestic violence tend to rise. The pandemic wasn’t an exception. A report released by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice in February 2021 estimated that domestic violence in the United States increased by 8.1% since the beginning of lockdowns.
As a result of pandemic-related barriers, domestic violence can be underreported. Pennsylvania experienced a mix of programs that saw an increased need and instances when clients couldn’t safely reach out. During the red phase of quarantine, the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh saw a 48% decrease in calls.
“Our clients have experienced more serious abuse, more frequent abuse,” Molinaro explained. “They have experienced, in some cases, resurgences of abuse from exes who have not been in touch.”
Molinaro said more abusive incidents have been occurring during custody changes, and they have learned of some parents using COVID as an excuse to be abusive, ignore parenting responsibilities or to keep their kids instead of trading custody.
Those impacted were often already in abusive relationships and abruptly lost connections with their support networks, she said.
In some cases, abusers withheld masks or cleaning supplies from victims as a form of coercive control, said Grace Coleman, executive director of Crisis Center North in Pittsburgh. Some clients grappled with the question of if the pandemic or their abusive partners provided a bigger threat.
Coleman described a client who called the center on a nearly daily basis.
“She felt as if she was in a dangerous situation, and she didn't want to go to a shelter because she felt that the risk of COVID was greater than the risk of the domestic violence,” she said.
Coleman doesn’t disagree that sheltering in place was necessary to slow COVID, but it came at a cost.
“The other pandemic that we experienced of domestic violence, it made that pandemic worse,” she said, “because people weren’t free to call to get support, because the perpetrators could hear them.”
Shelters had to get creative to meet client needs during lockdown.
The women’s shelter stayed open but had to alter its procedures for meals and cleaning. The shelter also sped up plans by six months to provide a text chatline, which launched in May 2020. It switched to a virtual HIPAA-compliant model for therapy. Throughout the pandemic, the shelter sent out care packages to clients with essentials like toilet paper and hand sanitizer and collaborated with local businesses like Giant Eagle to get the word out on the ways the shelter could assist.
“Although there are some services that are better delivered in person, there are absolutely services that can be better delivered via technology and better meet the clients needs,” Molinaro said.
The women’s shelter increased its counseling hours by 15% and ultimately served more clients than ever before, with a 9% increase from the previous year.
Crisis Center North doesn’t offer an emergency shelter, but they still found their services more in demand than ever. They’d already introduced a text-message chatline for clients in January 2020, but their counseling services also had to be switched to a HIPPA-compliant virtual model. For services that couldn’t be done remotely, Coleman recalled the additional safety planning required for staff members whose advocacy took them into the courts or to hospitals. It wasn’t always easy to balance the increased need with the financial and health constraints COVID created, she said.
Looking back, Michelle Gibb, executive director of Alle-Kiski Area Hope Center, acknowledged the oversight of relying on traditional methods of communication like phones and in-person interactions. Before the pandemic, this mostly presented a generational gap. But last March, Gibb realized the need to revamp outreach.
“We started ramping up various forms of social media to get people safety plans to be able to communicate,” Gibb said. They wanted to get information to friends and family “who would contact us and say, ‘I think that my daughter, son or mother is in a domestic violence situation’ and telling them ways they could get them support and finding ways that they could connect.”
The pandemic also hurt the finances of individuals in need, and in some ways, shelters themselves.
“We’re seeing survivors who have been unable to financially save up to leave as they had planned because of a decrease in income or a loss of job,” Molinaro said. “Unfortunately, women are being more impacted financially by the pandemic, and we’ve seen so many women who’ve had to leave their jobs to provide the child care.”
Coleman from Crisis Center North said that as they transformed their services, they also had to grapple with concerns over funding.
Many of the center’s usual donors were unable to give as much as they normally would, or in some cases, at all.
Gibb said she and other advocates are concerned about increased housing insecurity for victims. Crisis Center reported that the need for housing among its clients rose 198%.
The Alle-Kiski Area Hope Center continued its housing program under an altered model that leaned on remote communication. Funded through Housing and Urban Development grants, the center assists its clients with finding permanent housing. Typically, they serve an estimated 150 families per year either by helping them find housing or subsidizing their rent while helping them become economically stable.
Without the threat of housing insecurity or homelessness, Gibb said, people in domestic violence situations are less likely to stay.
“If you could get somebody from an unsafe situation into permanent housing in the middle of a pandemic, a lot of the additional traumas that that individual would have suffered were diverted,” Gibb explained.
Courts and PFAs
Kim Eaton, an administrative judge in the Court of Common Pleas, spent most of the past year hearing cases remotely.
“So what we did with that is the judge is there remotely, we have a big screen, it's a little bit like the ‘Wizard of Oz,’” Eaton said. “And so the litigants are brought in one by one and then they have their temporary PFA.”
A temporary PFA [protection from abuse] order is a court order that allows temporary relief for a person experiencing abuse from intimate partners or family members.
When the pandemic started, data the women’s shelter gathered from the court showed temporary PFA filings decreased by 40% from March to April 2020. This can be in part attributed to confusion. Eaton explained that in the beginning of the shutdown some people feared that the court was closed entirely. So the court’s Family Division relied in part on its relationships with local domestic violence organizations to help get the word out that the court’s services were still available. Filings have since increased.
Eaton recalled the challenge to balance social distancing with allowing the litigants to have emotional support. She didn’t want to mandate that only the litigant be present.
“I said I'm not gonna do that. If somebody has been abused. Particularly if it's a younger person, I want them to be able to have a support person with them,” Eaton said. “So we allowed everybody to have one person.”
The county funding kept the children’s room open for litigants with young children.
As of July 6, judges are back in the courtroom, but petitioners won’t be until Sept 1. Moving forward, the court is working on tools that would allow some petitioners to file their PFAs and appear remotely to reduce obstacles.
Susan Abramowich, a managing attorney of Neighborhood Legal Services, said some of the remote options that social distancing necessitated made navigating the court system easier.
Whether it's arranging child care, navigating public transportation or not being able to afford courthouse parking, Abramowich said her clients have always struggled while navigating the court under restricted time frames.
“I think our goal during this process has been to keep people out of the courthouse, of course,” Abramowich said, “and to get them out of the courthouse as quickly as possible when they come in, you know, while also giving them access to justice.”
- Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh serves all domestic violence survivors regardless of gender and offers legal advocacy, therapy, a children’s program and an emergency shelter. Text: 412-744-8445. Hotline: 412-687-8005.
- Crisis Center North is a resource center that provides counseling, economic empowerment, legal and medical advocacy, and other services to domestic violence survivors and their loved ones. Text: 412-444-7660. Hotline: 412-364-5556.
- The Alle-Kiski Area HOPE Center provides community education, legal advocacy, an emergency shelter and crisis intervention advocacy for domestic violence survivors. Hotline: (888) 299-4673. Phone number: 724-224-1100
- The Center for Victims is a non-profit that acts as a domestic violence emergency shelter, rape crisis center and counseling center. Phone: 412-482-3240. Hotline: 1-866-644-2882.
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a 24/7 service that provides support, crisis intervention and referral services to domestic violence survivors. Hotline: 1-800-799-7233.
- Pittsburgh Action Against Rape [PAAR] is a rape crisis center that provides therapy, legal and medical advocacy, education and crisis counseling for survivors of sexual violence. Hotline: 1-866-363-7273.
This story was fact-checked by Linden Markley.