Domestic violence a threat during quarantine

Suzanne Tomerlin, development director at the Hill Country Crisis Council, wants community residents to know that the HCCC, with its hotline and emergency shelter, has not gone away or closed its doors during this virus pandemic.

“We are still here with the same services, including counseling, advocacy and support groups including tele-health; and our emergency shelter is still operating,” she said.

“Our hotline calls are experiencing a downward trend, which was not entirely unexpected during this time. Being quarantined or isolated with an abuser is a dangerous thing,” she said.

For those trapped inside with an abusive partner, this new reality can also have the added horror of an increase in abuse.

A partner may intentionally mislead their victim into thinking that help is no longer available, Tomerlin said, adding. “We are highly aware of keeping our services accessible.”

Loss of jobs or the economic strain can lead to more abuse and also lead to fewer options to escape.

If a survivor had an emergency cash fund to assist in leaving, that money may have gone to rent, mortgage or groceries, she said.

Tomerlin said survivors should be aware that abusers may:

• Manipulate them into believing that there is no one available to help them right now;

• That police or paramedics won’t respond to their calls;

• Try to tell the survivor that the abuser is infected with COVID-19; that they’ve infected the survivor, and if they try to leave, they will put others at risk;

• Tell the survivor they cannot see any friends or family because of the risk;

• Or threaten to kick them and the children out and thereby expose them to the risk of the virus.

Tomerlin said many children also are now at risk, due to not having their usual support from teachers and counselors at their schools and day cares.

“We know episodes of violence are up, but we’re not getting as many calls,” Tomerlin said. “In quarantine the victim can’t leave as easily; and the abuser may have more uninterrupted time at home. Paired with the stress of everybody else also being there, that means kids are in more danger, too.”

She said staff and counselors have been tracking statistics both in the state and United States (which are down now), compared to China and other countries where the virus has subsided and their economies and “more normal life” have recovered to some extent.

“In those places the numbers of domestic violence calls are shooting up. We’re all looking for more calls after the COVID shutdown is over. Calls in February, March and April were down, with about 10 percent fewer calls.”

Locally, the Kerrville Police Department records show 34 total family violence assault calls between Jan. 1 and March 19 this year; and 31 between March 20 and May 21.

KCSO assault and disturbance calls were tracked, comparing March 1-May 21, 2019 to the same period in 2020. The number of assaults in the two periods fell from 50 to 42 (a 16-percent change), and the disturbances decreased from 122 to 111 (a 9-percent drop).

Tomerlin also wanted to stress that HCCC services are open to family and friends of victims of domestic violence, those who may know or suspect that their friend or relative needs some help but can’t ask for themselves.

“If they have questions about how to help someone else, they should call us. Victims also need other people to help watch out for them,” she said.

The toll-free hotline is 888-621-0047.

The local HCCC hotline is 257-2400.

In Kerr County, the HCCC staff promotes and runs the nonprofit organization out of a set of offices, and offers a multi-bedroom residence as a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

At capacity, the shelter can house 20 people, Kim Olden, HCCC program director, said, and offer meals and counseling, as well as staffing a 24-hour hotline that victims can call to ask for help.

“We’ve been at capacity for the entire past year, and that’s been pretty consistent every year. But they’re safe, and better here than somewhere else,” she said.

With the help of area grants and gifts, they also added a small kennel there, so those seeking help can bring their pet dogs to keep them safe, too. It’s been full, or near full, since it opened.

They are working on a small similar facility for cats.

One unhappy factor in domestic violence cases is that offenders may injure or kill a family’s pet, or threaten to do so, as a way of controlling their human victims.

“Physical violence usually happens after mental, emotional, and financial issues,” Olden said. “And through those, the woman may tell herself, ‘I can manage this;’ but when the violence becomes physical, and especially when it starts affecting the children, then she can move pretty quickly.”

But the virus quarantine may be complicating that, for some.

“They either leave or seek help in response to bad events; or there’s a period of calm after that and they leave before the violence can start again.”

And there are statistics that say the possibility of domestic violence in a home also increases the possibility or probability of added child sexual abuse to 70 percent.

Hill Country Crisis Council

Olden said they are not seeing an increase in new calls to the domestic violence hotline, or in requests for services.

“We are doing more crisis intervention with our current clients. They may have kids at home; and we provide crisis therapy for parents and families, about schedules and school. This is a critical help to parents with no income right now and the usual resources closed.”

Olden said some professionals in crisis counseling see an increase in clients coming after this current pandemic is over. And Tomerlin agrees, saying everybody is watching for that, when the quarantine is over.

“Remember that women suffering under domestic violence usually find some ‘alone time’ from their abuser to call us. They usually can’t do that while he’s in the home.”

She said with parents who are already clients, HCCC is using a HIPPA-compliant video health connection; and discuss with clients whether they’re working or not working; money impacts, and other stressors.

Olden said in virus circumstances, Crisis Council counselors cannot accompany victims to the hospital. But they are working with the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner nurses. The Crisis Council staff can go with clients to court, but go only so far into courtrooms.

“We’re continuing services, but in a different form. And there’s a real rise in stress when a family is ‘sheltered in place’ and then it’s raining and the kids can’t go outside.”

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