Protection from abuse orders drop 40% in Philly during pandemic, compounding domestic violence fears

Help hotline calls are up — and are often rushed and secretive.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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The coronavirus lockdown has put people experiencing domestic violence in a dangerous position over the past three months. Some in Philadelphia have been using 24-hour emergency hotlines to reach out for help, advocates say, but far fewer have filed for legal intervention from their abusers.

According to judicial data, applications from protection for abuse orders dropped nearly 40% under the pandemic when compared to previous years.

An average of 748 people per month filed PFAs during March, April and May 2018. During that same period this year — a time of stay-at-home orders, historic job losses and closed schools — those figures dropped to an average of 457 per month.

Data for Philly’s suburban collar counties was not immediately available, but sources in Montgomery and Bucks said PFAs filings are equal or lower than in previous months and years, as well.

Advocates for abuse survivors predicted a dip in protection orders when the pandemic hit back in March. As Billy Penn reported, they voiced concerns about people being at home all day with their abusive partners. In many cases, their children are also trapped.

While the region’s courthouses largely ceased operations due to COVID-19, Pennsylvania law mandates they still have to process PFAs, even during an emergency. The process can also be started online, but Azucena Ugarte, Mayor Jim Kenney’s deputy for domestic violence strategy, said that’s not an option for many in the city.

For some, the close proximity means constant surveillance, and no way to reach out for help — even on the phone.

“If you’re living in the same home with the abusive partner, and you want to make a protection from abuse order by phone, you’d have to do it at a time of day when the person is not right there, and that can be very difficult,” Ugarte said. “You don’t have the privacy to call and be able to file.”

Katie Young-Wildes, spokesperson for Women Against Abuse, said the domestic abuse hotlines have seen steady call volume even as PFA applications have dropped. Social workers have also gotten a more secretive sense.

“More callers than usual are sharing that their abusive partner is home when they are making the call,” Young-Wildes said. “We’re experiencing more short, frantic, quick calls, more hang-ups, and more abrupt endings.”

At the same time, calls seeking guidance on how to apply for PFAs have been steady — even if the application numbers themselves are down.

Women Against Abuse advocates say people are also calling specifically for emotional support and safety planning to better navigate their time stuck with a partner at home.

The situation is grim, for some.

“Callers are reporting harm reduction in their household, meaning they ‘agree’ to sex more often to keep the other forms of violence at bay,” she said.

People are also expressing worry about the sanitation and safety of congregate living settings like shelters as the virus persists. And relatives who might provide refuge under normal circumstances may not be willing to accept another person in their home, advocates fear.

Domestic violence service providers in every county do have funds for emergency hotel stays for individuals who need an immediate out from their situations.

Another concern that wasn’t immediately clear at the dawn of the pandemic in March: lack of childcare. Young-Wildes said some women must “decide between missing work — and the income it provides — or allowing their abusive partner to watch the child(ren).”

Said Young-Wildes: “This gap has surfaced as a result of childcare and school closures during the stay at home order, and is exacerbated by the financial strain and high levels of unemployment brought on by the pandemic.”

Resources for those in need

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 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

 

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