Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

In a time of extreme isolation, some of the most vulnerable Michiganders are left with the choice to either stay in dangerous situations or risk exposure to the coronavirus.

JACKSON, MI — In Jackson County, survivors of domestic or sexual violence turn to AWARE for support. While that hasn’t changed during the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the form that support takes has been changing.

“People are consistently telling me we’re busy. We’re busy. Survivors are reaching out,” AWARE’s executive director, Angelita Velasco Gunn, told the Gander. But, she added, “It’s going to be hard for survivors to come forward if they don’t know what the result of coming forward might be.”

Gunn couldn’t say for sure if the number of people in bad situations was necessarily higher, but the characteristics of those bad situations are far different under the extreme isolation the pandemic has inspired. People are in close quarters with their abusers for longer and longer, with fewer and fewer points of access to their support networks. 

And survivors are reluctant to venture into the unknown. Gunn told a story of a mother of a newborn who was concerned about potentially exposing her child to the coronavirus, so was reluctant to be relocated to a safer environment by AWARE. While there are alternatives like involving police and AWARE’s legal staff, remaining in the home while those confrontations play out can come with risks. 

Then there are the challenges the pandemic has put to just everyday survival.

“I think what we’re not seeing, an increase in the number of calls for example, is because people are distracted just getting their basic needs met,” she said, “In some sense people are just kind of maintaining, you know, we’re just kind of all managing. For me, it’s just another added layer of concern for those families.”

Gunn was able to confirm that AWARE’s legal staff had seen a rise in requests for Personal Protection Orders (PPOs) since the pandemic began, but overall call volume to their hotline hadn’t increased. Though, she noted, this might itself be proof of the rise in the stakes of situations — despite fewer safe moments to make calls to AWARE’s hotline with abusers and survivors both in the home, the call volume hasn’t changed.

Violence in the Time of Coronavirus

Similar stories are playing out everywhere. In Wayne County, sexual assault advocates at SAFE are still seeing the same number of cases, if not more. This is met with fewer services SAFE is able to provide survivors. SAFE told Gander that the only in-person services they currently offer is forensic exams, everything else has transitioned to a phone-only system.

In 2018, Michigan had nearly 50,000 reported cases of domestic violence and more than 12,000 charges of sexual assault according to the Michigan Incident Crime Reporting database. This represents the tip of an iceberg, however, as more than half of domestic violence cases go unreported according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data. Even that might be a conservative estimate, Mic reports that as many as 70% of crimes like rape, stalking and domestic violence go unreported. On average, women survive 35 instances of violence before reporting.

This means the real number of 2018 domestic and sexual assaults totals anywhere from 120,000 to 200,000. Applying those numbers to today’s quarantine, hundreds of thousands of Michiganders are endangered by staying at home.

Nationwide, 24 people a minute are subjected to domestic or sexual assaults, for a total of 12 million annually according to National Domestic Violence Hotline statistics

“We are hearing from survivors how COVID-19 is already being used by their abusive partners to further control and abuse, how COVID-19 is already impacting their ability to access support and services like accessing shelter, counseling, different things that they would typically lean on in their communities,” Crystal Justice, the chief marketing and development officer for the hotline told The Guardian.

The NDVH warned that abusers may use the pandemic to exert greater control by withholding items like hand sanitizer or insurance cards, spreading misinformation or as a means of intimidation. And one of the greatest tools abusers have during the pandemic is actually the most important part of pandemic response — social distancing.  

Isolating a person is one of the key components of abuse. The University of Michigan Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Center explains that creating barriers between a survivor and their social connections is a form of control that increases reliance on the abuser and decreases the ability to rely on a support system. Psychology Today further explains that this isolation allows the abuser to control the narrative surrounding the abuse, grooming the community to trust the abuser and distrust the survivor. 

Moreover, Psychology Today argues, a dire economic situation can prompt survivors to stay in dangerous situations longer. The coronavirus has caused an economic calamity with record-shattering unemployment. During the Great Recession of 2008, 74% of survivors stayed in abusive relationships for financial reasons, and 54% of shelters reported an overall increase in violence. 

And of course, that’s assuming the coronavirus isn’t actually increasing the number of instances of violence. Not only have SAFE and AWARE remained busy despite all the headwinds survivors face in reporting, but the elevated levels of stress surrounding the pandemic might be sparking new instances of violence and abuse, reports Axios

How Coronavirus Changes Care

AWARE has spaces open in its shelter still, Gunn said, but understands concerns about overcrowding and has adjusted its operations to help carry out social distancing. Gunn said they have offered survivors hotel rooms for a few days while things are sorted out, and noted that they’ve been directing more people toward their legal staff to help in establishing PPOs to keep abusers away from survivors. But all this adaptation is a challenge. 

“We’re a small staff of like 25 employees, I don’t want to overwhelm them so I’m trying to figure out how to synthesize this data,” Gunn told Gander. “Facebook is the place where people are going for up-to-date information about everything. I’ve found that’s true for our Facebook page as well, we’re getting quite a bit of traffic.”

So Gunn has been using Facebook to get information to the public, like how to get in touch with staff as services transition to fewer face-to-face meetings. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, AWARE’s counselors have migrated their caseload to either telephone or web-based services with speed and success, Gunn said. 

The coronavirus is a major boon for abusers, as it does a large amount of the work isolating the survivor on its own and provides a myriad of tools to abusers. The survivor in quarantine is rarely outside the observation of their abuser, and even rarer in contact with someone without their abuser’s surveillance. Meaning those hundreds of thousands of Michiganders are facing a more dire situation than ever before.

Acknowledging the risks with calling their crisis hotline ((517) 783-2861), Gunn mentioned that they’ve been closely tending their Facebook page to assist survivors silently when necessary. Both AWARE and SAFE have also moved counseling services to a remote model during the pandemic. 

“We are finding that we’re having to spend more time with people and be more creative about what alternative to whatever might have been essential services to them in the past that are feasible now,” Gunn said. “It may not be immediate, it may not happen the way we’re used to, but in the meantime there’s a person on the other line who first and foremost believes their story and is trying to, in a very empathetic way, problem-solve with them.”

3 Steps For Survivors
In light of the increased risk, the NDVH advises three key steps to survivors and their support network.

First, create a safety plan. A personalized, practical plan to escape a situation is always important for survivors, but with work-from-home and social isolation becoming the new normal the safety plan is more crucial than ever. With shelters having limited space alternative arrangements should be considered, though AWARE is working with survivors to find accommodations when needed. NDVH has resources for developing a plan.

Second, practice self-care. NDVH advises this not only to survivors, but everyone. In this time of high anxiety and crisis management, attending to personal health and wellness can feel like a luxury sometimes, but is essential. It can also feel horrible to know a survivor and not be able to see them or check in on them because of the coronavirus, and seeing someone hurting can be stressful, but providing resources and encouragement is still being helpful. 

Third, reach out. Places like AWARE, SAFE and NDVH are still there in this time of crisis, and are still providing services. Those services might be different, and the pandemic adds a new layer of fear and anxiety to already hazardous situations, but strategizing and working out a unique, personal action plan is part of what these organizations provide. More than that, though, NDVH reminds people to reach out to their loved ones through phone or social media, to maintain the human connection in a lonely, scary time. 

Government can take action too, as Illinois has shown. As WREX reports, the Illinois Department of Human Services has expanded services to survivors. Illinois has established a statewide shelter hotline service and is working with the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence to establish an emergency fund.

Gunn mentioned talking regularly with government and advocacy organizations as well, providing AWARE those kinds of connections and resources in this troubled time. 

“I’ve been getting a lot of information from a lot of different sources that are helping us try to figure out how to adapt our services,” she said. “Including places like the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) and our own large funders.”

So even in this isolated, uncertain time services for survivors remain available.