Crisis could increase cases of domestic abuse.

By Sharon Bishop-Baldwin For the Examiner-Enterprise

Home, safe home is the order of the day these days, but not everyone feels the security of domestic bliss.

For victims of abuse, the thick walls of a home that are meant to keep out thunderstorms and coronaviruses alike can shield the source of their terror and hide the violence from the public eye.

And the frequency and severity of domestic abuse likely will increase while Americans are staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

“All around the world, as communities have gone into lockdown, we’re hearing increased reports of domestic violence. We know that domestic violence rates rise during times of natural disasters,” said Rhonda Hudson, executive director of Ray of Hope Advocacy Center. The Bartlesville-based organization has for 15 years helped adults and children in Washington, Nowata and Osage counties find the services they need in one place to recover from child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, teen dating violence and stalking.

One in four women and one in seven men in the United States have been subject to severe physical violence by an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hudson said the “increased stress of the pandemic, children at home all day, lack of resources and job loss can all be factors that increase stress and reduce our ability to deal with stress.”

And for people in a relationship with a history of violence, “all of these factors can increase the risk of family violence,” she said. “Abusers may take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to further isolate their victim by withholding necessary items such as hand sanitizer or disinfectants or spread misinformation about the virus or public health information.

“They may withhold access to medical cards or prevent victims from seeking medical care,” she added. “An abuser may even lie about symptoms to make the survivor believe that they have to stay to take care of their partner or stay because they or their children have been exposed to the virus.”

Even so, Hudson said, survivors are not powerless. She said self-care is critical at such a time of increased stress.

“Stress can lower the immune system, potentially making you more susceptible to illness, including the COVID-19 virus,” she said. “Make sure that everyone in the home is getting plenty of sleep, drinking lots of water, eating healthful foods and connecting with your support system if you can.”

Hudson added that survivors of past trauma may experience a rise in trauma symptoms and should pay extra attention to how they are feeling.

“If you need help, you can reach out to your local mental health provider – many of whom are providing online resources – or contact the Oklahoma Disaster Crisis Hotline at 800-985-5990,” she said.

Friends, relatives and neighbors can also play a role in ensuring someone’s safety, she added.

“We’re asking our community to be a part of the safety net for families,” Hudson said. “We’re calling on churches, families and neighbors to check in on those who might be particularly isolated or in a vulnerable situation.”

Two dozen U.S. senators from nearly 20 states sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services on March 24 asking the Trump administration to allow agencies that support domestic violence victims and their children to be flexible and accessible throughout the pandemic.

Locally, the Ray of Hope Advocacy Center, the Delaware Tribe of Indians and local law enforcement agencies are all responding to domestic violence calls and assisting with emergency protective order applications, Hudson said.

And although the Washington County Courthouse is closed to the public, judges are reviewing and making decisions on protective order applications daily.

“Survivors need to be front and center of making decisions at a time like this, which can be hard when you don’t feel like you have a lot of choices,” Hudson said. “We know that when a survivor chooses to leave a domestic violence situation, the risk of serious injuries can increase by 75%.

“It’s not always an easy choice to make, especially when you have children.”

And even though domestic violence is never the responsibility of the survivor, there may be ways that he or she can prevent the escalation of violence.

“Survivors are the experts of their own situations and often know best how their partners will respond right now,” Hudson said. “They might think about what triggers can be avoided or how to minimize issues that have the potential to escalate into violence.”

She said survivors needing to make safety plans inside the home might consider the safest locations and stay away from kitchens, garages or bathrooms, which might have more items that could be used as weapons. She said guns should be unloaded and locked in a gun safe if possible.

Children should be taught not to try to intervene in an assault, but they might need to know how and when to call for help, such as using a “code word” that would alert them to run to a neighbor’s house and call 911, Hudson said, noting that April is Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month.

Not all abuse is physical. The Justice Department defines domestic violence as any physical, sexual or psychological harm inflicted by a current or former partner or spouse.

“Many of us are finding ourselves feeling more stressed than usual, and often our families are on the receiving end of our cranky moods,” Hudson said. “But when relationships are built on unhealthy or abusive patterns, it can go from annoying to dangerous.”

Resources for victims of domestic violence

If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

Ray of Hope Advocacy Center – Advocates answer the agency’s 24-hour crisis line at 918-214-8886 and can assist with safety planning, emergency protective orders and other resources.

National Domestic Violence Hotline – Call 800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522. Available 24/7.