For some, the coronavirus pandemic has been a never-ending vacation built upon the comforts of home. But for victims of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV), the quarantine has been stressful – and incredibly dangerous.
“‘Shelter-at-home’ may be a safe haven for some, but for others, it’s a waking nightmare,” says Ruth Darlene, founder and executive director of WomenSV. She created the organization to help people who face domestic abuse in middle-to-upper income areas. “Many victims are trapped at home day in and day out with their abuser, and are increasingly desperate as a result.”
Amy Durrance, director of systems change initiatives at FreeFrom, shares the results of a recent survey, asking FreeFrom’s grantees how COVID-19 has impacted them. “Survivors identified four key effects: 1) escalating violence; 2) fewer financial resources, making it harder to get and stay safe; 3) theft of stimulus checks and other COVID-19-related assistance; and 4) slowed court proceedings, keeping survivors in contact with harm-doers and delaying potential income like child support.”
It’s a new spin on an old issue, but it has made leaving an abusive environment that much harder. “In our current reality of increased isolation due to COVID-19, abuse is thriving,” cautions Durrance.
“In the hands of an abuser, anything can be weaponized – even the pandemic,” warns Darlene.
However, COVID 19 doesn’t have to be the reason you stay in a harmful situation. We spoke to the experts to find the best way to survive domestic violence during the pandemic. This is what we found.
The first step is to recognize abuse within your relationship. It can be easy to see domestic violence in the media or in other relationships and think, “That will never happen to me,” but it doesn’t just happen overnight. Nor is it always the physical sort of abuse that often comes to mind.
Domestic abusers are patient and sly, slowly revealing parts of themselves over time until suddenly, you have no idea how this controlling person has come to share your bed.
“If you aren’t sure whether you’re in a healthy relationship, ask yourself how you feel after spending time with your partner,” says Darlene. “If they put you down, erupt with anger, start arguments, and place blame for everything on your shoulders, you may be a victim of covert abuse.”
“An absence of broken bones or bruises doesn’t mean severe emotional wounds resulting from covert abuse aren’t lying underneath the surface,” she adds.
Types of abuse and how the pandemic increased vulnerability
There are many different forms of domestic abuse, and while they are all part of a set of behaviors known as domestic violence indicators, they do not always look the same.
“Victims of covert abuse may experience legal abuse, emotional abuse, financial control, or the use of technology as a means to stalk, monitor, and terrorize,” explains Darlene. “These behaviors leave victims feeling paranoid and beaten down.”
Emotional and psychological abuse
Kelli Dillon, founder and executive director of Back to the Basics, warns that IPV and domestic violence doesn’t always look the same. “Some abusers may say something humiliating in a crowd. Another may throw just a look that tells the victim to ‘get in line’ in one way or another. Because the specific actions can vary so much, the victim’s hypersensitivity [in felt sensation and emotional tenor] can actually be one of the clearest indicators of emotional abuse.”
An abuser doesn’t have to hurt you physically in order to leave pain. Verbal abusers use words to humiliate, frighten, demean, or control another.
“Covert abuse takes many forms, explains Darlene. “It may look like micromanagement of basic everyday activities like cooking, criticism of your appearance, undermining your relationship with your children, or scrutiny of everything you do or say, resulting in blame and punishment.”
Physical and sexual abuse
Physical abuse involves the deliberate harming of another person. This can include anything from hitting to slapping, choking, punching, and shoving. The inappropriate use of drugs or physical restraints are also forms of physical abuse.
Sexual abuse is a separate form of abuse that involves unwanted sexual actions, which include touching, coerced nudity or sexually explicit media, in addition to rape and sodomy.
During the pandemic, Darlene has recently observed a new form of abuse. “At WomenSV, victims have reported their partners refusing to follow sanitation protocols,” she reports. “This is especially frightening to those with underlying health conditions.” She says WomenSV is also hearing about room-to-room stalking, which prevents the victims’ ability to have a moment alone to seek assistance.
Financial or economic abuse
Coronavirus has brought a significant increase in financial and economic abuse. Darlene says abusers may spend stimulus checks on themselves instead of on the family, or prevent their partners from going to work, thereby putting the victim’s job (and thus independence) in danger.
Durrance breaks down the reality of financial abuse in numbers. “For instance, harm-doers steal an average of $1,280 from survivors each month, incur an average of $15,936 in coerced and fraudulent debt each year, and cause survivors to lose an average of $23,076 of income annually.”
With the rise of the Digital Age, so comes an increase in a new form of abuse that harnesses technology and uses it as a weapon against one’s partner.
“Young adults who are confined with abusive partners and those reliant on technology for communication are experiencing higher rates of controlling behavior, threats, and assault during the pandemic,” says Stephanie Nilva, attorney and Executive Director and Founder for Day One, an organization dedicated to domestic violence prevention with direct legal and counseling services for young people ages 24 and under.
It is a population that Nilva says “experiences more intimate partner violence than any other age group.” Just last week, her team released a short video about isolation and DV. And with social media as one of the COVID-safe methods of socialization, technological abuse may be even more isolating than it was before the coronavirus spread.
Accusations of sex abuse within the Catholic Church revealed a new kind of abuse called spiritual abuse. This can involve a member of your religious organization, such as an elder or leader of your church. However, it can happen at home, too.
Domestic violence can include the persecution, interference or prevention of practicing one’s faith. This could mean that your partner ridicules, insults or manipulates your religious beliefs or abusers can prevent you from practicing your faith altogether.
Relationship red flags
Domestic violence confuses and muddles normal love, making it difficult to identify unhealthy behaviors. Sometimes, your emotions are all you need to identify an unhealthy relationship.
“A healthy relationship means sharing power, treating each other like equals, acting with integrity. It means trust. Safety – feeling emotionally and physically safe with a partner – perhaps angry sometimes, but never afraid,” says Darlene.
That’s not the case with Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). Kandee Lewis, executive director of Positive Results Corporation, walks us through some of the feelings associated with emotional abuse.
Barriers to leaving an abusive relationship
Many ask why victims of domestic violence and IPV don’t just leave the relationship. It’s not so simple. Here are some of the common barriers that prevent some victims from leaving abusive relationships.
“Economic abuse –which is any tactic employed by harm-doers to control survivors by controlling their finances – means survivors often have no money, no job, no income, no assets, damaged credit, and no support system,” explains Durrance.
“The financial devastation wrought by intimate partner violence is trapping survivors in abuse,” she continues. “The #1 obstacle to survivors’ safety is financial insecurity. In fact, 73% of survivors report that they stayed in abuse because they simply couldn’t afford to leave or stay safe.”
Job loss from the COVID-19 pandemic compounds this issue.
Impact on children
For some who feel trapped in a domestic violence situation, their concern is for their children. Custody is far from guaranteed, and it’s a popular threat that abusers leverage over their partners to make them stay and propagate the abuse.
Says Darlene of the common threats her respondents have cited, “Barriers include his threats to destroy her, take the children, the house, their/her life savings, ruin her career, hunt her down and kill her.”
It’s more than enough to make some partners stay.
Lack of resources
Legal recourse doesn’t feel like a viable option in a pandemic, especially when many local courts – who decide things like custody, divorce, and restraining orders – are reliant on in-person court sessions and meetings with lawyers.
“COVID-19 has crippled the legal system,” says Brian D. Joslyn, Family Law Attorney of Joslyn Law Firm in Columbus, Ohio, citing the aggressive backlog of cases. “A sector that will feel the brunt of these backlogged cases the most will be those seeking to legally separate or divorce from their partner,” says Joslyn. “I’m worried the most for those parties that are also victims of domestic violence.”
Nilva describes some of the victims and survivors at Day One. “When they experience harm, they have little access to social services and may believe all assistance is closed off to them. Abusive partners may also reinforce this fear by using the pandemic risk, telling a partner, ‘You’ll get sick if you go out’ or threatening to place them at greater risk.”
Some IPV victims may be dependent on their abuser for purposes related to immigration status. Perhaps they rely on their partner as their primary translator, or they don’t have a valid driver’s license or other important documents the U.S. government requires. The victim may also be reliant on a dependent visa, meaning they’d have to leave the U.S. if they divorced their abusive spouse.
Some abusers will try to use your relationships against you or try to cut you off from them completely. “Isolation is a tactic of abusive partners; preventing or discouraging a partner from accessing outside support builds greater dependence on the abuser, increasing their control,” Nilva explains. “When people are not leaving home for work and school, and are indoors more frequently, they have less interaction with other trusted family, friends, or professionals.”
Lack of privacy
Joslyn is seeing a new problem affecting the court system, especially where victims are concerned. “How is the victim supposed to meet with a family law attorney to seek their representation when most law firms are only doing consults via Zoom due to social distancing?” he asks. “It’s not like they can have a candid conversation from the family living room when the abuser is in the other room.”
Darlene agrees. “Many are now under constant surveillance, limiting their ability to plan an escape or make calls to therapists, attorneys, or domestic violence agencies,” she says. “It’s increasingly difficult for victims of intimate partner violence and abuse to leave their relationships due to the pandemic.”
At the end of the day, it’s love that brings couples together, and sometimes that’s the reason victims stay.
“Consider no matter how badly parents treat their children, the child will do all they can to try to make their parent(s) love them,” Lewis points out. “This leads us to believe we do not deserve to be loved, that everyone comes to a relationship with pain and will put that pain on us. We look inward to determine ‘What can I do better?’ or’ What did I do wrong?’ or ‘How can I make [that person] love me (more or again)’.’”
Sadly, with an abuser, that day will never come, and it’s the reason why so many victims finally find the courage to leave.
Preparing to leave your abuser
“With so many of us working-at-home or having reduced hours, many victims are being exposed to their abusers more than ever,” Joslyn says. “Actions and steps, such as finding new permanent or temporary housing, getting new or low-cost transportation, establishing new bank accounts, even getting a new cell phone away from the abuser’s family plan can be nearly impossible when you’re required to remain in close proximity to the abuser.”
Leaving your abuser definitely takes some planning, but it can be done with these key tips from our domestic violence experts.
Safety and departure
Set aside money
“If a survivor decides that leaving is the best and safest option for them, making a financial safety plan is a great way to prepare,” advises Tannia Ventura of FreeFrom. “Financial safety plans are as unique as the survivors who use them – survivors know best how to keep themselves and their families safe.”
Safe ways to set aside money include asking someone you trust to hold onto some cash for you. If you have the freedom and means to open a bank account at another bank your abuser doesn’t use, do so.
Prepare an emergency bag
“Discreetly fill a go-bag with cash, clothes, medications, important documents, masks, and gloves,” advises Darlene. Other things to include in a go-bag include:
- Spares of car and house keys
- Toys for your kids
- A list of important phone numbers (if not already saved in your prepaid phone)
- Charger for your prepaid phone
- Portable charger
Come up with a code word
“Let a family member, close friend, or social worker know your plans to leave and where you’re headed,” says Darlene. A code word can help you safely communicate plans without fear of being overheard.
Secure important documents
“Put your IDs, passports, social security card, Green Card, (etc.) in a safe place,” urges Ventura. “If you can’t take physical control of these documents, try taking pictures of them when you feel safe doing so. Keep the images in Dropbox or a Google Drive that only you have access to.” You can also try using a scanner app on your prepaid phone
Some local domestic violence shelters run programs where they’ll give you a new phone to use, or you can always buy a prepaid phone at most gas stations or retailers. Short of that, try changing your phone number and creating a new email.
“Creating a new email that only you have access to can be helpful in securing your finances,” says Ventura. “Many survivors use Protonmail because it is encrypted and adds extra security to emails. Change passwords, addresses and emails if it is safe to do so. Get a P.O. Box or ask a trusted friend or relative if you can use their address so that you have a safe place to send mail.”
Ventura recommends that before you change anything, check which email and phone number are listed in the account. Whoever is listed as the recovery email or phone number will be notified. “If someone who is causing you harm is listed as the recovery, get on the phone with the company,” she advises. “Let them know that you are experiencing intimate partner violence by the person listed on the recovery account and ask if you can change your information without notifying them.”
Research in advance
“We suggest you start quietly building your village with trusted friends, allies and professionals,” says Darlene, suggesting “a good therapist who understands coercive control, an attorney secretly retained, a support group to validate and encourage you and share valuable information and resources.”
If you know where you’re going to go, research what certain staples cost in the area so you can have enough cash squirreled away.
Plan your escape
“Put the pieces in place to maximize your chances of escaping successfully, all while keeping your cards close to your chest. The less [your abuser] knows about your plans, the safer you will be.”
Disable location services on all devices
“Sophisticated abusers hack into their partner’s phone and laptop, spying on their every move. Some may even install stalkerware,” Darlene adds. Go the extra step and install encrypted messaging services – and bury them within your app menu.
Have local law enforcement or resource center assist
If you feel your safety is at risk in leaving, talk to your local law enforcement or area resources to see how they can help you safely leave your abuse.
Take care of yourself.
“Leaving your abuser begins with mental preparation and self-care – shoring up your inner reserves for the battle that lies ahead because an abuser will not let go easily,” warns Darlene. “Abusers tend to confuse love with ownership and possession, and they become dangerous when they feel they are losing control of you.”
Support services to help you leave
“It’s best to reach out to a domestic violence agency who understands the process of leaving an abuser, since it is so different from leaving a regular relationship,” says Darlene. “It is dangerous, and the court system can be an unfriendly place.”
Nilva urges victims to seek help. “It’s important for people to know that services are available, shelters are open, and the courts are operating (even if virtually),” she says.
These are some of the organizations that can help.
Financial independence and support
Per the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), you are entitled to time off from work in order to address domestic violence in your home. This may be paid or unpaid, depending on your state laws.
Food assistance programs
As a victim of domestic violence, you and your children are eligible for food stamps and do not have to show a permanent address to qualify.
Federal and state assistance programs
In accordance with the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, each state and area within the U.S. has a State Domestic Violence Coalition. There are also programs available to help finance your move and offer victims compensation.
Some victims may be able to benefit from unemployment insurance benefits through your state’s Employment Development Department (EDD) agency.
Continued education resources
The National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health is an excellent resource for domestic violence and IPV.
Immigration support and visas for victims
Homeland Security offers immigration assistance to non-U.S. citizens who are victims of domestic violence.
Under the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), victims of domestic abuse may be eligible for a Green Card if you are “the victim of battery or extreme cruelty.”
U Nonimmigrant status is for certain victims of mental or physical abuse that are helpful to or involved in an active case.
The T Visa is a special visa that allows victims of a “severe form of human trafficking” to remain in the country for up to four years when contributing to an active case.
Even if you are undocumented, your child is eligible for food stamps if a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.
If you a quick Google search (in a private tab on a public computer or your prepaid phone) doesn’t turn up the contact information for your local resources, Darlene advises that those seeking help call 211 or 311 and ask to be transferred to their local shelter.
In addition to rental apps and websites, these are some options to find a safe place to stay.
- Find a local shelter in your state.
- Women’s Shelters can not only help you find a shelter but also transitional housing.
- Section 8 or Low Income Housing may be an option under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), giving you access to subsidized housing.
Once you settle into a new home, look into renters Insurance as a way to protect your belongings going forward.
Protecting yourself after leaving
For some, the struggle doesn’t end after getting out.
“Most domestic violence incidents happen AFTER the survivor leaves, and the danger level spikes for two years after leaving an abuser,” says Darlene.
Get a domestic violence protective order
“Consider getting a protection order and if you do, keep a copy on you at all times,” recommends Darlene. “Don’t share your whereabouts or new address in order to minimize any chance of your abuser finding you. Safe at Home, a program through the Secretary of State, can help to keep your physical address confidential.”
The Resource Center on Domestic Violence: Child Protection and Custody can help with custody-related fears and issues.
“Survivors should look for any unusual activity on their devices and use encrypted communication tools to safely escape from an abusive partner,” Darlene suggests. “Replace your laptop and phone, and secure your accounts, changing passwords and PIN numbers.”
“If changing your account information isn’t safe, start an online bank account,” advises Ventura. “Make sure to select the paperless option so that no bank statements are mailed to your address.” And make sure the email your online bank has on file is the email your abuser is unaware of.
Notify your workplace
Domestic violence affects you in the workplace, too, impacting your ability to continue or resume work. Be sure to let your employers know what is going on so they can provide you with the necessary help and support.
Darlene adds, “Once you’ve left, keep in touch with people you trust. It’s important for them to know you’re safe and continue to support you.”
The bottom line
These groups work so hard to provide a way out to those who feel trapped, forgotten, and lost within the downward spiral of domestic violence and intimate partner violence.
Darlene urges you to keep your strength and summon your courage. She acknowledges the challenges ahead but insists, “It can be done!”
“There is light and life on the other side,” she says. “Remember, you deserve to live in peace and safety and freedom in your own home – and so do your children.”
Disclaimer: This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the advice of qualified resource providers with any questions you may have.
This article was first published on MyMove.com.