Shelter at Home and Domestic Violence the Worst Case Scenario

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The world is still adjusting to the “new normal” of sheltering in place and social distancing. Requiring children and adults to remain under the same roof while attempting to simultaneously work, teach and parent seems like the stuff of a funny meme on social media. For some, the nightmare is all too real.

Domestic violence and abuse, whether of an adult or child, is all too common under normal circumstances. Additional stressors such as anxiety caused by rising unemployment, financial stressors, and being unable to leave the home to decompress, can play a dangerous role in increasing the likelihood of domestic violence and abuse occurring. Many adults are required to work remotely from home, and several schools have announced that they will continue to utilize distance learning for the remainder of the school year. Because adults and children alike are required to limit any contact with others, victims of domestic violence and abuse no longer have the usual outlets for reporting and exposing that abuse. Adults may find it difficult to invent an excuse for leaving the home to make a report or may not have the necessary privacy to make a call or even go online. Children are no longer being interacted with on a regular basis by teachers and school officials to keep an eye on potential signs of a problem. Due to risk of public infection, access to resources normally available to victims may be restricted or temporarily unavailable, or victims may weigh the risk of exposure to coronavirus by going to a local shelter above the risk of harm from abuse. What other options do victims have?

Intervention in abuse can done in different ways and does not always require police or legal involvement. However, for some, legal intervention is unavoidable. Texas courts statewide have made diligent efforts to remain available to the public despite the current global crisis, particularly in situations that require emergency legal intervention. Access to protective orders and restraining orders is still available through various resources, and these cases have been given priority to be heard by the courts. Protective orders offer criminal consequences for continued contact by an abuser of the adult or child applicant. Adult victims also have the option of including any child affected by the abuse in his or her application for a protective order as well. Restraining orders can also be used as a means of de-escalating a potentially dangerous situation and can include a requirement that the perpetrator be excluded from a property on a temporary basis. Emergency magistrate protective orders and local district attorney offices are still functioning to prosecute criminal matters and seek protective orders following intervention by law enforcement. Alternatively, many private attorney firms, as well as non-profit legal organizations, are also available to expedite applications of either protective orders or restraining orders if a victim prefers not to contact law enforcement. Law enforcement can also do a “well check” on a family member, friend, or neighbor to ensure that there is no immediate need for intervention as well.

Despite closures of many local government offices and private services, many abuse prevention organizations have attempted to raise awareness that, now more than ever, access to abuse prevention resources must be made available and expanded to service the anticipated increase of victims during this global crisis. The increased demand for awareness and services has already been seen worldwide and local authorities are reporting that domestic violence and abuse are on the rise amidst the current crisis. Many local government and private organizations provide hotlines and online resources to direct victims and concerned friends and family members on how to seek help. Options like calling 2-1-1, or the local family protective services hotline are well-established resources that can connect victims to the services they need.

Family violence and abuse prevention organizations have made efforts over the years to evolve their services to be more widely accessible and available to victims in our changing digital society. While abuse hotlines and websites are still widely in use, applications have been developed to help individuals obtain information about signs of abuse, connect victims to resources or enable one-touch communication for help. Some applications even allow a victim to covertly look for and access help from a device to avoid discovery by their abuser. Many of these applications are available for free to download to different devices and on different platforms.

Other useful methods can be employed as well to keep those at risk safe. Things like the private chat feature on a videoconference utility like Zoom can allow a victim to make it seem like a normal videoconference is taking place, while secretly requesting written assistance from a third party, friend, or family member. Continued contact with one’s personal network of friends, co-workers, and family is an easy way for victims to reach out for assistance, whether adult or child. Also, having an established “Safety Plan” in place that is shared with one’s personal network is always best. A Safety Plan establishes a potential victim’s protocol if and when abuse is anticipated or, in fact, occurs. The Safety Plan is created and then shared with a trusted set of individuals in the potential victim’s personal network to help establish the steps the potential victim would take to ensure their safety, and the safety of any of his or her dependents. The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence offers Personalized Safety Plan on their website here to help you get started or share with a friend or family member.

Now more than ever, it is imperative that we remain vigilant about the health and safety of our family and friends. Despite the requirement to be isolated from physical contact with others, victims of domestic violence and abuse are at a greater risk than ever before. Always contact local authorities if you have reason to suspect that a friend, neighbor, or family member is being subjected to violence or abuse. If you are a victim, reach out to someone for assistance, and do so as quickly as possible. Help and resources are available to ensure that, when this state of emergency ends, everyone is as safe and healthy as possible.

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