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Home alone and terrified

Victims of domestic abuse face additional challenges during COVID-19 pandemic

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PRINCETON — Freedom House, which works to help and protect domestic violence victims in five local counties, reports an uptick in people seeking services during the coronavirus outbreak.

Tricia Schafer, Freedom House community relations manager, said over the past weeks, many more victims than usual have sought refuge at the Princeton shelter.

“We expect this increased demand for our free shelter, advocacy and counseling services to continue,” Schafer said. “Because of the social isolation seen during a pandemic, the incidence of domestic violence and sexual abuse can elevate dramatically. Our shelter is open, and we continue to provide all victim services, including counseling via telephone.”

One bit of good news, she said, is that they continue to see an outpouring of support from the communities they serve, something she is grateful for.

Calls to Streator’s ADV and SAS have fallen far below their usual numbers. This isn’t a cause for celebration, however, Safe Journeys Executive Director Susan Bursztynsky said.

Bursztynsky said she fears this means the stay-at-home order is causing abusers to be home more often, and their victims are less able to reach out for support.

“My thought is that the reason calls are lower now is that when you’re at home, it’s just not safe to make the call,” Bursztynsky said. “You don’t have the private time to reach out to a domestic violence shelter.”

Bursztynsky said instead of being at work, victims are either at home with their abusers or they are somewhere the abusers know about, opening up the opportunity for more phone calls, social media or physical threats.

“One of my main concerns I have is whether or not there will be a great increase in calls on our support line once people are able to reach out again,” Bursztynsky said. “We’re really worried about that.”

Bursztynsky said it’s important to keep in contact with friends in at-risk situations right now.

“Text your friends every day; call them every day,” Bursztynsky said. “Let them know you’re concerned. Ask if there’s anything you can do. If someone you know is in an abusive situation, maybe you can set up a code word to let them know to call the police.”

It’s not always easy to recognize the signs of danger, experts warn.

Schafer pointed to several factors that put people at risk of domestic or sexual abuse in greater danger during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Risk increases

Stress, the disruption of social and protective networks, and decreased access to services increases the risk of violence, she said. As distancing measures are put in place and people are encouraged to stay at home, the risk of intimate partner violence is likely to increase.

The likelihood that women or men in an abusive relationship and their children will be exposed to violence is dramatically increased, as family members spend more time in close contact and families cope with additional stress and potential economic or job losses, Shafer explained. Women or men may have less contact with family and friends who may provide support and protection from violence.

Additionally, Schafer said women bear the brunt of increased care work during this pandemic. School closures increase this burden and place more stress on them. The disruption of livelihoods and ability to earn a living, including for women (many of whom are informal wage workers), will decrease access to basic needs and services, increasing stress on families, with the potential to increase conflicts and violence.

She said perpetrators of abuse may use restrictions due to COVID-19 to exercise power and control over their partners to further reduce access to services. Perpetrators may also restrict access to necessary items such as soap and hand sanitizer. Perpetrators may exert control by spreading misinformation about the disease.

In the longer term, access to vital sexual and reproductive health services, including for victims subjected to violence, will likely become more limited. Other services, such as hotlines, crisis centers, shelters, legal aid and protection services, may also be scaled back, further reducing access to the few sources of help that women or men in abusive relationships might have.

Schafer assured the public that they are continuing to provide counseling services via phone.

“Many of our clients are struggling,” she said. “They depend on ‘normalcy,’ routines and schedules. Chaos is triggering for many victims and survivors of sexual assault and abuse. We are working on coping skills with all our clients. We are working with them on mindfulness techniques for stress and anxiety. We are stressing the importance of keeping routines, limiting exposure to news and social media, and staying in contact with support systems.

Schafer reported as of Monday, the shelter is at full capacity. However, this will not prevent them from assisting anyone in need of help.

Note to readers: Mike Urbanec of Shaw Media contributed to this report.

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