The COVID-19 outbreak has drastically changed society’s normal daily routines as people stay home from work and school in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.
But what if your home isn’t the safest place for you?
Across Arizona, organizations that provide crucial services to survivors of domestic violence are focused on helping them stay safe during what is a very stressful time for everyone, but a potentially dangerous time for those facing abuse.
“We can all imagine the idea that if the threat is outside of our doors, we often retreat to our homes and we want to lock the door and that’s the way we feel safe,” said Ed Mercurio-Sakwa, the CEO of Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse. “But when the threat is inside the home, telling people ‘Do not leave your home’ is a really scary idea.”
Emerge! operates an emergency shelter for survivors, a 24/7 bilingual crisis helpline, prevention and intervention services, support groups and several education-based programs aimed at ending domestic abuse. They are the largest organization in Southern Arizona dedicated to helping domestic abuse survivors, and all of their services are still available during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mercurio-Sakwa said Emerge is experiencing an increase in the number of people reaching out for help. While there’s a wide variety of reasons for that, he said social distancing is the exact thing that can be detrimental to someone who is dealing with violence in their home.
“Isolation is a really commonly used tactic in abusive relationships,” he said. “It’s a way to keep people away from support systems that might help them navigate that safety issue in their relationship. It’s a way to keep people away from somebody that might contradict what that abusive partner is saying. Someone who might say ‘That doesn’t sound right’ or ‘That doesn’t sound like a healthy relationship’ or ‘That sounds really scary.’”
Other service providers are seeing a similar trend: the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence operates a helpline for survivors and community members to access resources. Co-Chief Executive Officer Tasha Menaker said they’ve seen a 10 to 15 percent increase in calls.
“Which is something we expected just in light of social isolation, general stress surrounding the coronavirus outbreak, financial stress that people are experiencing, and then limited access to basic needs,” Menaker said. “All of those things create more stress for people and that increases risk for violence in the home.”
The coalition, based in Phoenix, has in its membership sexual and domestic violence programs across the state. Menaker said some of those groups have actually seen a decrease in calls.
“That’s concerning to us because that may mean that survivors are less able to get access to resources because they’re at home potentially with the person who’s harming them, or they may think that programs aren’t open right now,” she said. “So we’re working hard to get the word out that all the programs are currently open, including in Tucson.”
It’s a concern shared by Mercurio-Sakwa. He said the opportunity to make a call for help could be nonexistent if a survivor is isolating at home with their abuser.
“They don’t have that moment where they’ve gotten to go to work to have that free moment or that their partner has left for work, leaving them that free moment,” he said.
Menaker said the coalition is suggesting folks remember that during a stay-at-home order they can still go to the grocery store, get their mail or take a walk around the block. She said they’re trying to support survivors in finding new and different ways to find privacy and make those phone calls if needed.
But giving broad advice to people in this kind of situation is tricky, because what may work for one person might put another in more danger.
“You could say if you can’t make a phone call, you can reach out to us through social media and we can connect that way, but the problem is for one person that might be a great solution but for somebody else, that’s the place where their partner might be checking,” Mercurio-Sakwa said. “So it’s really case by case.”
However he does suggest that even though everyone is physically distancing from one another right now, we shouldn’t be eliminating the ability to communicate through telephone, video, text or whatever works best. If survivors are still in regular contact with friends and family, it means they will hopefully be able to reach out for help if necessary.
“On the flip side, it helps that we don’t disconnect from each other completely because that support system that person is relying on is proactively reaching out and staying connected,” Mercurio-Sakwa said. “So if and when they have a need, they still have that relationship there to call upon.”
Similarly, Menaker encourages family members and friends to reach out if they believe someone that they care about is being harmed, because they might be able to make a phone call to a helpline and gather some helpful resources to share with a survivor who is not able to do it themselves.
In addition, if people are interested in supporting survivors, Menaker encourages them to share information about helplines and programs through their own social media accounts, and donate to organizations like Emerge!.
Emerge! is currently asking the community for in-kind donations of high demand supplies for their emergency shelter, such as toilet paper, disinfecting wipes and rubbing alcohol.
They have employed additional cleaning practices in their shelter and have established as much social distancing as possible. Mercurio-Sakwa said if someone is sick with anything, they have the ability to house them separately from other residents so illnesses do not spread.
Supply donations are being accepted at Emerge’s administration office, located at 2545 E. Adams Street, on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Their website, emergecenter.org, has the most up-to-date list of items in need.
Mercurio-Sakwa and Menaker are hopeful that the community will keep domestic abuse survivors in mind during the COVID-19 outbreak so that their issues and needs don’t fall by the wayside.
“While all of us are rightfully worried about this virus, there are people who have even bigger concerns on their minds, and that includes when they’re being abused,” Mercurio-Sakwa said. “So we need to make sure that not only Emerge’s services continue to operate, but that we as a community do not forget those folks.”