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In Tampa Bay, COVID trapped domestic violence victims with abusers

The pandemic isolated victims from family and friends and offered abusers another tool of manipulation, local providers say.
Tampa Bay domestic violence organizations have reduced capacity in their shelters by nearly 50 percent since the pandemic started in March 2020, but the annual number of families served has remained consistent, said Community Action Stops Abuse CEO Lariana Forsythe, seen in her St. Petersburg office last month. CASA is a domestic violence agency serving Pinellas County.
Tampa Bay domestic violence organizations have reduced capacity in their shelters by nearly 50 percent since the pandemic started in March 2020, but the annual number of families served has remained consistent, said Community Action Stops Abuse CEO Lariana Forsythe, seen in her St. Petersburg office last month. CASA is a domestic violence agency serving Pinellas County. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 21, 2021|Updated Dec. 27, 2021

She spoke an indigenous Central American language, knew little English and couldn’t read much Spanish. When her abuser falsely told her this year that Hillsborough County was under strict pandemic lockdown, that she could not leave the house or take her children to school, she felt that she had no choice but to listen.

The woman’s abuser used COVID-19 and the language barrier to tighten his control over her and their kids, said Rosa Contreras, the director of outreach services at The Spring of Tampa Bay, the domestic violence agency serving Hillsborough.

After a few weeks, the school noticed her children’s lack of attendance and contacted their mother, who then revealed that she was a victim of domestic violence. In September, the school referred her to The Spring.

“It took us a long time to gain her trust,” Contreras said.

The woman has since escaped the abusive relationship, Contreras said, and now lives in an apartment with her children through The Spring’s rental assistance program.

This case is one example of how local providers say the pandemic exacerbated domestic violence in Tampa Bay and across the country.

Trapped together

COVID-19 trapped victims with their abusers, forcing them to spend more time together at home, experts say, particularly if either lost their jobs. That could also leave them more financially dependent on their abusers.

Pandemic-related stressors — financial insecurity, threat of illness, home schooling, loss of routine and social opportunities — likely exacerbated the frequency and severity of abuse, said Dr. Abraham Salinas-Miranda, director of the Harrell Center for the Study of Family Violence at the University of South Florida.

Measures necessary to protect people from the virus — such as social distancing, working from home and remote learning — could have benefited abusers, experts say. They isolated domestic violence victims and their children from friends, family, colleagues and teachers who could have intervened or reported the abuse.

Related: Pinellas domestic violence survivor helps lead other women to freedom

In the U.S., a quarter of women and 10 percent of men experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A February National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice report shows that reported incidents of domestic violence increased by more than 8 percent last year.

Domestic violence is historically underreported, so experts say the actual number of incidents tend to be three to four times higher than what statistics show.

“We’ve seen and heard a lot more combative and aggressive violence during this period of being trapped with abusers during COVID,” said Jena Blair, deputy director of family law at Gulfcoast Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance in Tampa Bay.

Her organization has seen double the typical number of domestic violence survivors seeking legal help for restraining orders, divorces or child custody.

Rising death, violence

The Pinellas County domestic violence agency Community Action Stops Abuse, or CASA, is seeing increasingly violent cases of abuse, said CEO Lariana Forsythe.

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She said she has seen a rise in reports of strangulation — a sign that experts say the abuse may soon turn deadly — among clients visiting the facility or calling their domestic violence hotline, which received 5,245 calls from July 2020 to June 2021. That’s 35 percent more calls than the same period from the previous year.

“You don’t always see strangulation marks,” said Forsythe, citing the case of Gabby Petito, a woman whose disappearance and murder garnered national attention. In August, a 911 caller told Utah police they saw the boyfriend assault Petito, but police let them go. She disappeared in September and her body was later found in Wyoming, where authorities said she had been strangled.

The suspect was her Florida boyfriend. He returned to North Point, disappeared, and in October was found dead in the woods of Sarasota County.

But most domestic violence victims are killed with a firearm, Forsythe said.

Related: Pinellas center for domestic violence survivors to open in October 2022

Pinellas County has had 12 domestic violence-related homicides so far this year, twice the number in 2020, according to CASA’s tracking of cases. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement will not release 2021 domestic violence offense data until spring 2022.

The pandemic also saw an overall increase in alcohol and substance use, which further enables violent behavior among abusers. Research shows that up to 60 percent of domestic violence incidents in the U.S. involve substance abuse and alcohol, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

But alcohol doesn’t abuse people, Salinas-Miranda said. Abusers do.

“Alcohol and substances just make it easier to justify their behaviors or pretend that they don’t remember,” he said. “Because domestic violence is not the loss of control. It’s the exertion of control.”

Shelters shrink, but adapt

The pandemic also made it harder for domestic violence organizations to shelter survivors and families.

CASA and The Spring both reduced capacity in their domestic violence shelters by nearly 50 percent since the pandemic started in March 2020, which allowed families to have their own rooms and practice social distancing. Neither shelter has yet to return to full capacity.

But the annual number of families served in the shelter has remained consistent, Forsythe said. Limiting capacity has allowed CASA to serve families faster and more effectively, while giving families more space and privacy to heal.

“What we’ve seen is survivors being more successful and getting out of shelter more quickly … because there’s less people taxing the shelter,” she said. “By having their own space, people are able to process their trauma and get the resources they need.”

Related: New sexual assault crisis facility to open in south Hillsborough County

Contreras said The Spring offered hotel vouchers to survivors who needed shelter but were immunocompromised or concerned about staying in a communal living space. The agency also provided bus fare to survivors who preferred to travel to family or friends.

The two bay area domestic violence agencies have housing programs that help survivors transition out of shelters and secure long-term or permanent living space, through case management and financial assistance. CASA’s partnership with the Homeless Leadership Alliance and Boley Centers allows the agency to offer survivors and their families apartments for 30 percent of their income.

Case managers at CASA and The Spring also help survivors find rentals in the community through their rapid rehousing program. Survivors may have poor credit due to financial abuse, Forsythe said, so case managers explain to landlords the survivor’s domestic violence history and vouch for them as renters. CASA often helps survivors pay the deposit or a portion of their rent.

Cost of freedom

The greatest barrier to assisting survivors during the pandemic has been helping them find affordable housing, Contreras said.

Rent must be affordable enough that survivors can maintain housing after The Spring ends financial assistance, which lasts up to two years.

Last year, the nonprofit struggled to find apartments for less than $1,600 a month, Contreras said. This year, they’re seeing monthly rents of no less than $1,900.

Record-breaking housing costs, coupled with the loss of jobs and income, made survivors even more hesitant to leave their abusers during the pandemic.

“Fear of not having enough resources to live without the perpetrator has always existed,” Contreras said. “During the pandemic, the fear increased.”

Related: Florida claws back $5 million from nonprofit after spending scandal
• • •

How to get help

If you are in immediate danger, call 911. The Florida Coalition of Domestic Violence can be reached at 800-500-1119 or via TDD at 800-621-4202. Here’s how to reach Tampa Bay’s domestic violence agencies for help:

Hillsborough County: Call or text The Spring of Tampa Bay’s 24-hour crisis line at 813-247-7233 or visit online at The TTY line is 813-248-1050.

Pasco County: Contact Sunrise of Pasco County via its 24-hour hotline at 1-888-668-7273 or 352-521-3120, or go online at

Pinellas County: Contact Community Action Stops Abuse, or CASA, by calling the 24-hour hotline at 727-895-4912, texting or visiting The TTY line at 727-828-1269.

• • •

Domestic violence warning signs

  • Abuser isolates victim from friends or family.
  • Victim is encouraged or forced to stop participating in activities important to them.
  • Abuser controls finances or puts victim on an allowance, asks for explanations of spending.
  • Victim is blamed for their feelings, yelled at or made to feel “small.”
  • Abuser criticizes and controls victim’s appearance, including what they can wear.
  • Abuser abandons victim in places they don’t know.
  • Abuser keeps victim from eating, sleeping or getting medical care.
  • Abuser throws or punches things around victim.

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