The message we keep hearing over and over again from government and health officials is that it’s imperative to practice social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis: To benefit public health, we have to stay at home. But what if your home isn’t a safe space?
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, intimate partner violence (IPV) — defined as physical and sexual violence, psychological harm and staking — affects more than 12 million Americans a year. And with much of the country under stay at home or shelter in place orders, including Ohio, it can become much more difficult for victims of IPV to seek help or support — finding a private place to call a hotline or the police when you’re isolating in the same space as an abuser; concern about obtaining shelter elsewhere; or worrying about the basic functionality of emergency and court systems set in place to help survivors.
Women Helping Women (WHW) is just one of myriad local and national nonprofits with the goal of providing help to victims of IPV, specifically through “evidence-based prevention and expert crisis intervention and support services for survivors of dating violence, sexual violence, domestic violence and stalking."
In a typical year they serve 15,000 clients, much of that through an immediate-assistance crisis hotline, in-person service, 24-hour hospital accompaniment, support groups, law enforcement and courtroom advocacy, education programs, therapy and more. But all of that has had to immediately pivot to virtual and tele platforms in light of COVID-19.
WHW President and CEO Kristin Shrimplin refers to IPV as a public health epidemic compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.
“When you have one out of three women experiencing gender-based violence, you know it's a public health epidemic; we've got two out of three kids experiencing trauma in the home and exposure to gender-based violence,” Shrimplin says. “Now on top of that, you have a pandemic that is really debilitating all the systems that are designed to show up and support the public health epidemic of gender-based violence.”
Shrimplin says that starting March 16, WHW began looking at domestic violence spikes in other countries already on stay at home orders as a result of the coronavirus — China, France, Spain, even Seattle here in America — and started forecasting. They upped their crisis hotline staff and began planning other strategies for how to pivot to digital.
In early March, WHW saw a 36 percent increase in hotline calls.
Then on March 22, after Ohio’s stay at home order was announced, they saw a dip — a 10 percent decrease in calls.
A similar trend happened with child abuse and neglect reports, says Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. His office said, “Ohio has seen approximately a 50-percent drop in child abuse and neglect cases because those who typically report suspicions of abuse — such as teachers, coaches, child care providers, and school counselors and nurses — aren’t seeing children every day.”
“So that makes us kind of unpack looking at some of the global trends. What do we know? What's been documented? What does it look like for a survivor at home?” Shrimplin says.
She says over 90 percent of their clients are below the federal poverty guidelines, so as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19, some may have had to choose between spending their phone minutes on a hotline call or reserving them for something else. Or maybe “there's more danger due to proximity (to an abuser),” she says.
As a result, WHW has fast-forwarded plans to launch a new text chat feature, which began today. It will allow survivors to get ahold of the agency 24/7 without making a call. They also offer a chat function on their website.
“If a survivor is stuck in the home and they can't get enough privacy because of the abusive individual, maybe they could, if they're in the bathroom or pretending they're running a shower, send off a quick text,” Shrimplin says. “And then we can connect with them through the chat. Plus, it may also help them with their data plans.”
The text innovation is just one of the ways WHW is meeting survivors’ needs and staying connected during the pandemic.
While the nonprofit generally runs about 20 in-person support groups for survivors, they now have five virtual groups: for survivors at the University of Cincinnati, survivors at Miami University, a community-based domestic violence support group, a sexual assault support group and a Latin X/immigrant/Spanish speaking support group.
They’ve also moved their one-on-one crisis management to tele therapy and Shrimplin says it’s working really well. “Survivors like it and we're able to take in new clients very easily for free therapy,” she says.
But what about for people who have never called WHW, who have never reached out for help, or are now finding themselves in a situation where they need immediate assistance? Shrimplin says the root of gender-based violence is about control and with the addition of the pandemic, abusers are utilizing the circumstances to exert additional power. This can create volatile situations, especially when you add in the recent increase in firearm purchases, she says.
“We know fundamentally that survivors have always disproportionately had firearms threatened to be used against them or (actually) used against them. Now you’ve got people purchasing firearms, stay at home orders and domestic violence/intimate partner violence/sexual assault occurring,” she says. “That is a combustible climate.”
So what happens the first time you call the WHW crisis hotline?
“On the other end of the line, they're immediately going to hear a calming voice. They're going to hear someone who is expertly prepared to listen to the situation they're in, to help them with a customized safety plan. They're going to immediately be speaking to someone who's going to be able to assess what current level of danger you're in, and if we need to kind of speed up — with permission of the survivor — if we need to dispatch 911 or if we need to get them to the hospital,” Shrimplin says. “Or if it's not that type of situation, if what they really need to do at that moment is just unpack and talk about what is happening. They're going to be believed. They’re going to be validated. They're going to be told something that they haven't been told in that abusive relationship, which is there is help. They matter. They are seen, they are heard and we're here for them.”
WHW has established protocols with the Cincinnati Police Department, North College Hill Police Department and Delhi Police Department for emergency response calls for domestic violence. If those departments have been dispatched to a domestic violence call in the current pandemic, they can reach WHW — with approval of the survivor — while on the scene to work together to do some immediate safety planning virtually or by phone, help with relocation and help with the process of moving forward with court processes, like filing for a protection order.
While some other court functions have been suspended, the Hamilton County Court of Domestic Relations is still continuing to hear domestic violence civil protection petitions and domestic violence cases.
Also worth highlighting: April is Sexual Violence Awareness Month and all hospitals in the region that WHW partners with — TriHealth, Mercy, Christ, Good Sam, etc. — are absolutely still accepting sexual assault survivors and conducting rape kits. Shrimplin says she has heard many survivors are wary of entering hospital or health care facilities because they are afraid of being exposed to COVID-19 — “This is just a choice that survivors never should have to make. Never should they have ever experienced sexual violence. And now they shouldn't have to choose whether or not they feel safe and secure going to get an exam,” she says — but practitioners are still there and conducting kits. If you visit one of the partner hospitals and wish to be connected to WHW, they will now connect with you virtually to go through the process. Previously an advocate would be able to be on-site with you.
“It’s a difficult time, but what I would tell survivors is, everybody is welcome to call our hotline: if it’s emotional abuse, verbal abuse, mental, psychological, financial, sexual violence. We also encourage and accept calls to provide support to loved ones and family members and friends who are concerned about their loved one who may be experiencing this,” Shrimplin says. “We have at our fingertips so much access to connection to other resources.”
Shrimplin says WHW is still offering all of its same services, although now they are just virtual or over the phone.
“All of these systems and services are under the category of essential services and nothing is shut down. Now, some of the ways that services are being conducted may have to look a little different but anyone in danger and needing emergency services, that is still available to them. And our hotline absolutely is open. Our support groups are open, they just look a little different now. But we're hearing from survivors that they're enjoying them; they're feeling connected.”