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Experts fear abusers using COVID as a cover
Safe Haven, police say domestic violence rising in isolation
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For most people, the COVID-19 mandates to shelter at home may be inconvenient and sometimes boring, but for some, being isolated at home could be more dangerous than risking exposure to the coronavirus.

Domestic violence and abuse are always a problem in any community, but when people are kept away from others, confined in close quarters for longer periods than usual, the abuse cases have a tendency to occur more often.

Kimberly Billings, who works with a local shelter, Safe Haven, as its public relations director, comes face-to-face with abuse cases daily and recognizes that public situations like the COVID-19 pandemic make it more difficult for those being abused.

“Domestic violence centers, including Safe Haven, are reporting a rise in the number of calls they are receiving” about family violence and physical abuse, she said. “Staying inside has been a vital part of overcoming COVID, but home can be a very dangerous place if you and your children are in a domestic violence relationship.”

She said the number of domestic violence calls are slowly increasing across the nation as well as in our community. It affects 1 in every 4 women, 1 in every 7 men, and 1 in every 3 teens, she said.

“Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviors used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. It could manifest as physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse and economic deprivation, cyberbullying, pet abuse or isolation.”


The numbers

Although Safe Haven, as well as Statesboro police and the Bulloch County Clerk of Court’s Office, all show a noted increase in domestic violence numbers, not all cases are reported. The Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office numbers show an actual decrease in reports, but that does not necessarily mean the crimes aren’t happening, said Bulloch County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Bill Black.

Bulloch County Clerk of Court Heather Banks McNeal shared the number of Family Violence Act petitions (restraining orders) filed Bulloch County in 2019 as compared to 2020. From January through April 2019, there were a total of nine, while for the same period in 2020 there have been 13, with the most noted increase in the month of April. Last year in April there were only two family violence protection orders filed, but this year there were six, she said.

Statesboro police Chief Mike Broadhead also said he noted a rise in domestic violence numbers.

“Statistically, we have had a slight increase. From March 20–April 19, 2020, we responded to 115 domestic disturbance calls. During the same time period in 2019, we responded to 103.”

The county Sheriff’s Office, however, saw a decrease in reported incidents.

"I ran incident reports for the last 90 days and then ran a query for the 90 days prior to that,” Black told the Statesboro Herald Tuesday. “It looks like there was a drop in actual incident reports for family violence.”

He searched actual domestic calls received via 911 and direct calls for BCSO, Brooklet and Portal, and those numbers also “showed a decline in calls for service for domestic related calls,” he said.

However, numbers could be misleading, he noted.

“Because there is a decrease in reporting does not mean there was a decrease in occurrences. I don't doubt (Statesboro police and Safe Haven) are having increases. I just can't say that we are based on the call for service and incident reporting data that I am looking at," he said.


COVID-19 and abuse

The reaction to the coronavirus pandemic gave abusers several opportunities to mistreat victims, Billings said. The methods of abuse vary, she said.

“Abusers may share misinformation about COVID-19 to control or scare victims.” Other methods of abuse include “forcing or prohibiting physical contact, disabling or disconnecting phone or internet services, monitoring phone and computer use, restricting contact from others who may be checking in on friends or relatives, hiding keys, threatening to take the children or to return the children, refusing to let a victim work outside the home or work remotely,” she said.

“Abusers may withhold insurance cards or threaten to cancel medical/auto insurance. They may prevent victims from seeking appropriate medical attention if (coronavirus) symptoms are present, or they may tell them they have been exposed when they have not, just to isolate them” further.

Some abuse others by “exposing them on purpose to COVID-19,” she added. “They may withhold necessary safety/personal items such as hand sanitizers, masks, cleaning supplies and food.”

People who abuse will take advantage of anything to wield power over a victim, she said. A typical method is “using the COVID-19 pandemic and the stress it is causing as an excuse for their abusive and controlling behavior.”


The unreported

That Black’s figures show an actual decrease while other agencies report a rise in domestic violence numbers indicates that not every case ends in an official report to law enforcement.

That means there are victims that are not getting help, or even recognized, Broadhead said.

“My biggest concern, frankly, is the number of domestic disturbances and child abuse cases we are not responding to,” he said. “Unfortunately, I am afraid that an unintended consequence of the shelter-in-place orders and the closing of schools is that our vulnerable folks are now stuck at home with their abuser.”

Often, school and work are “escapes” for victims.

“We know that batterers are really skilled at isolating their victims, separating them from their friends and family slowly over time as a method of control. Domestic violence is, above all, a crime of power and control. So these orders have, unfortunately, helped isolate people.”

Social distancing and limited activity have been a double-edged sword, Broadhead said.

“The community ‘safety net’ for these victims has always been their ability to get out and be around other people, at work, at school, etc. Teachers, school social workers and school nurses are prime members of the safety net.”

If they see kids with suspicious marks, bruises, cigarette burns or other signs of abuse, they “can then help that child receive some help. In the same manner, coworkers can serve as informal counselors and help domestic violence victims by listening to them, seeing signs that they are in trouble and reporting those suspicions,” he said.

But with the widespread social isolation, “those safety nets are closed at the moment,” Broadhead said. “This problem is so insidious that I would say we are having a co-occurring public health crisis: the coronavirus, and the silenced victims of domestic violence and child abuse.”


Community cooperation

Billings said she expects the numbers of reported cases to rise as the pandemic continues.

“Domestic violence will continue to rise because abusers take advantage of stressful situations such as COVID to gain more power and control over their victim and to keep them from gaining help from community agencies such as Safe Haven,” she said. “We want survivors to know there is help available and they are not alone.”

She praised the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office and Statesboro police.

“Our local law enforcement agencies are amazing and will help you if you need it,” she said. “They pass out our brochures, enforce temporary protective orders, escort survivors to the safe housing, and help them get their belongings. They understand the complex dynamics of domestic violence. It is one of the most dangerous calls they go on.”

She also urges the public to speak up if they suspect abuse.

“Our community needs to remember that there are victims at home with people who can really hurt them. If you see something, say something. Check on your friends, family and neighbors. You could save a life.”

Never underestimate the possibility of abuse, she said.

“If a victim tells you they are abused, believe them. You may be the only person they tell. Everyone deserves to be safe in their home and in their relationship.”


How to get help

Many are unaware of the scope of services available through Safe Haven, Billings said. The agency covers six counties including Bulloch and has provided safety and support to victims of domestic violence since 1994. There is a 24/7 crisis line as well as emergency shelter, safety planning, legal advocacy and help with temporary protective orders, she said.

They even offer pet assistance.

“Just like you wouldn’t leave your kids behind, you wouldn’t leave your fur babies behind,” she said. Safe Haven works with “local nonprofits to take care of your animals so they aren’t left behind.”
There are housing programs, outreach services, child and adult support groups; access to clothing, toiletries and other essentials; as well as assistance with transportation, child services and referrals to resources.

“You don’t have to stay at the shelter to receive services,” she said. “We offer the same services whether you stay there or not.”

Also, “Safe Haven services are confidential.”

Safe Haven’s 24-hour crisis line is (912) 764-4605. 

“If you’re in immediate danger, please call 911,” Billings said.


Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.

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