As news of quarantines and lockdowns began to spread this spring, experts braced for what seemed to be a perfect storm for a spike in domestic violence.
Added financial stress, isolation from others, an increase in gun sales and possible increases in alcohol and drug use are risk factors in normal times. And emergency situations that result in lockdowns have historically led to a higher number of cases.
But a few weeks into the coronavirus crisis, law enforcement offices across Tampa Bay saw about the same number of calls as before — as did 42 domestic violence shelters across the state. In some locations, fewer people were seeking help, although many of the cases involved greater violence.
In Hillsborough County, State Attorney Andrew Warren saw 36 fewer case referrals during March and April than the same period last year.
The decline has raised red flags among domestic violence advocates who participate in a weekly statewide call of domestic violence shelters.
So on Friday, Warren’s office launched a “We’re Open” social media campaign. The office has joined with The Spring of Tampa Bay, the City of Tampa, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Hillsborough County and Tampa Fire Rescues and WWE star Titus O’Neil among others, to let those experiencing domestic violence know that resources are still available.
“We’re concerned,” Warren said. “Usually if we see calls going down, that’s a good thing. But the fact is we know domestic violence increases in emergency situations. ... Our fear is that they’re choosing the devil they know over the one they don’t — the uncertainty of what happens to a case or possibly exposing their kids to coronavirus.”
A variety of factors can cause people to avoid law enforcement help, said Mindy Murphy, CEO of the Spring of Tampa Bay, a nonprofit that works to prevent domestic violence and protect victims. The reasons include a lack of privacy to use the phone or internet, and fear of the unknown.
“It’s not safe to call when your batterer is sitting across the couch from you or lurking around the corner,” Murphy said.
With news of nonviolent offenders being released from prison during the crisis, she said many victims might fear what could happen if their abuser is arrested but later released, despite law enforcement’s commitment to protect domestic violence victims.
Even when law enforcement is called, some may fear escalated violence if an arrest is not made or if an injunction doesn’t go through.
“There are a lot of tactics abusers use that are incredibly damaging but not illegal: economic abuse, emotional abuse,” Murphy said. “It’s important survivors have experts that can talk them through the likelihood of getting an injunction or the best plan for them.”
Shelly Wagers, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida who was a law enforcement officer before entering academia, said the criminal justice system is imperfect in how it addresses domestic violence.
“We need the criminal justice system, but we need more than the criminal justice system,” said Wagers, who researches domestic violence. “There’s imperfections in our system of what we can and can’t do. We have to investigate and arrest based on a discrete event.”
The lack of reported numbers, she said, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Some states, she said, have witnessed a spike in incidents reported. But those were states that included domestic violence centers and law enforcement officials in planning before stay-at-home orders were implemented, she said.
People also fear contracting the virus in shelters, Murphy said, despite increased measures to sanitize and separate residents as much as possible, giving each family their own room and bathroom.
“I worry survivors think it’s like orphan Annie-style barracks,” she said, “We have taken extreme steps to keep things as safe as possible.”
Community Action Stops Abuse and Sunrise of Pasco County have also taken increased measures for sanitation and social distancing.
Tracy Wickering, executive director of the Haven of RCS, said the St. Petersburg domestic violence shelter has decreased capacity and created triage areas for temperature screening. They also are offering people masks, plus isolation rooms for individuals who may be at higher risk because of increased contact with others.
Each home situation is different, Wickering said, but some tips include making sure there are multiple exits in a room, moving arguments out of kitchens or bathrooms, or creating code words with a friend or neighbor to call law enforcement if needed.
Wagers said some of the decrease in reported numbers from law enforcement can be attributed to the lack of bystanders calling in.
Employees of the shelters stress that the goal is not always for someone to leave their environment immediately, but to keep the person calling in safe. Well-intentioned people often advise those who confide in them to cut contact with their abusers or act in ways that could potentially escalate violence, Wagers said. Domestic violence hotlines can determine the best course of action, she said.
“What could keep me safe, could get you killed,” Murphy said. “(The person calling) is the expert in the abuser. We don’t know that person, but we can find ways to keep them safe.”
Among the questions posed to callers: Has the person threatened to strangle you? Kill you? Kill themselves? Have they threatened to harm a pet? Are they excessively jealous?
“There’s a stigma of saying ‘I’ve experienced domestic violence,’” Wagers said, “There’s a lot of shame to reach out for help when violence starts in the home.”
Wickering said domestic violence occurs far more frequently than people admit. “Most people feel like they probably don’t know anyone like this, but chances are you do,” he said.
Experts anticipate a spike in reported numbers after stay-at-home orders ease, but for many that won’t be the end of experiencing domestic violence.
“It’s not like the economy gets better and all is well,” Wickering said. “Their situation is ongoing. ... It’s like we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”