Philly’s coronavirus response

Philly region braces for domestic violence surge with families stuck inside

Nonprofits and government officials are struggling to maintain connection with victims.

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Facebook / Women Against Abuse
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Things began looking ominous in early March. Pennsylvania ordered schools to close statewide. Businesses locked their doors and sent workers home. Virtually overnight, the coronavirus pandemic pulled the shades down, sending the Philadelphia region into crisis mode.

For domestic violence victims, it was a recipe for another, less visible disaster.

“If people are isolated in their homes, they now don’t have an opportunity to call,” said Jeannine Lisitski of the nonprofit Women Against Abuse in Philadelphia.

Advocacy groups estimate nearly 10 million people are physically abused by an intimate partner each year in the U.S. With families now stuck in the house — victim, abusive partner, potentially their kids — it’s especially dangerous, they say.

“The family dynamics in households where people typically get along really well are already strained by the anxiety and the close confinement,” said Beth Sturman, the director of Laurel House in Montgomery County.

“This attempt at safety for the community will absolutely put some of our most citizens in an unsafe position,” said Ifeoma Aduba, interim director of A Woman’s Place in Bucks County.

Then toss in the additional stressors already being wrought by the COVID-19 outbreak. Thousands have lost work, and many are panicking about money, not to mention the potential to fall ill.

“Abusers don’t do well with stress, so it heightens the chance of violence in the home,” said Donnell Reid, a domestic violence counselor in Philly.

The crisis has also put a financial strain on some of the perennially underfunded service providers. A Woman’s Place in Bucks County had to cancel its largest annual fundraiser to comply with the government ban on large events.

Organizations are working to adapt as they continue to provide outreach for victims of domestic abuse — and they say the public can help.

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Distress calls jump in suburbs, Philly ‘bracing’ for escalation

One of the first things advocates did after governments began to shut down services was coordinate with various courthouses and local officials to make sure Protection From Abuse orders, also known as PFAs or restraining orders, could still be processed in the county, even if courts are closed for most cases.

In Philadelphia, government officials and nonprofits who work with domestic abuse victims haven’t yet seen a rise in the number of victims reaching out. But it’s only a few days into the city’s shutdown, and they expect an uptick is coming.

Azucena Ugarte, Mayor Jim Kenney’s deputy for domestic violence strategy, said they’re concerned emergency shelter beds will fill up quickly, and anticipate sending more victims to hotel rooms.

“We’re bracing for it — and also the aftermath,” Ugarte said.

Pennsylvania saw more than 120 domestic-related murders in 2018, the overwhelming majority committed by a current or former partner. Philadelphia alone sees for an average of 37 women murdered under these circumstances each year.

Bucks and Montgomery counties, where coronavirus cases emerged nearly a week before Philadelphia, have already seen an increase in calls for help.

Requests for PFAs have gone up in Montco, Sturman said. Former clients at Laurel House whose situations had stabilized began reaching out from their quarantines. “And people have only been shut in for a week,” Sturman added.

Keeping 24-hour hotlines and counseling open

Translating client services into methods that work remotely has been essential for agencies and nonprofits, as they try to keep their employees and clients safe from COVID-19 while still providing help.

The first step was making sure there was enough staff to run 24-hour call-in operations like the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline, which advocates say are the front line of contact for people in abusive home situations.

“I was the on-call supervisor this weekend, and it was busy,” Sturman said.

Once people have reached out to make contact, advocates say, many depend on counseling and support groups as a lifeline. Maintaining those meetings while also following “social distancing” rules has been a challenge.

Donnell Reid holds a weekly counseling class called “Sister Circle” at Women In Transition, one of Philly’s four main resource providers for domestic violence victims. For some survivors, she said, the risk of coming down with COVID-19 pales in comparison to what they’ve been through.

One of Reid’s clients who recently escaped an abusive relationship, said she would readily risk exposure to coronavirus in order to maintain access to the support group.

“She wasn’t afraid of coming out because of the virus,” Reid said, “because she had spent so much time in fear of her abuser.”

The quarantine period has the potential to bring even more people forward once the health crisis subsides a bit.

Ugarte, Philly’s domestic violence director, anticipates the close quarters will lead many to recognize, but not yet act on, their abusive relationship.

Afterwards, she said, “they may start asking for help to get out, look for counselling, take legal action. Maybe right now they can not, because it’s not the safest thing to do, but afterwards we will have an uptick in those requests.”

A surging need and strapped for cash

The pandemic hit A Woman’s Place at an inopportune moment. The only nonprofit for domestic abuse services in Bucks Countywas scheduled to hold its 25th annual fundraiser last weekend, and had to cancel at the last moment.

“It was a big fundraiser, and those dollars are wildly valuable for us, especially in crisis situations when you need to respond to things,” said interim director Aduba.

Under normal circumstances, money is already tight for nonprofits like these, which rely on a mix of local, state and private funds. “It’s never enough,” Ugarte said of the cash flow.

Plus, funding often comes with restrictions, which can create a dilemma when the situation is anything but normal. Many nonprofits described dipping into their general operating budgets in order to expense transit and hotel rooms for abuse victims during the COVID-19 outbreak.

They also use those funds to help victims directly — many of whom are cut off from accessing cash.

“Financial abuse is a huge issue at this point,” said Corinne Lagermasini, director of Women In Transition. “Survivors don’t necessarily have control over their resources.”

Resources for victims — and where to donate

Multiple nonprofits leaders told Billy Penn that the most helpful thing right now would be for people to make “unrestricted” donations, which can help support getting victims into a safe space during the outbreak.

Victims can also access resources through the websites linked below.

Philadelphia

There are several domestic abuse service providers in Philadelphia, inducing Women Against Abuse, Women in Transition, Lutheran Settlement House Bilingual Domestic Violence Program and Congreso’s Latina Domestic Violence Program.

To get connected and begin receiving help, call the toll-free, multilingual Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-866-723-3014.

Protection From Abuse orders can be filed 24 hours a day in the basement of the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice courthouse at 13th and Filbert streets.

If you need legal assistance with a domestic abuse case during the COVID outbreak, leave a voicemail for the legal aid team at Women Against Abuse, including a safe number you can be reached at.

Montgomery

Laurel House

Bucks 

A Woman’s Place

Delaware 

Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County

Chester 

Domestic Violence Center of Chester County

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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