Domestic Violence During a Pandemic: How Advocates are Adapting

Oct 23, 2020

When the pandemic first hit, calls to Tri-County Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault dropped off dramatically.

“It was pretty silent here. Our phones were not ringing,” said Angela Shields, a victim advocate for Tri-County Council. The organization provides support to victims of domestic and sexual abuse in Forest, Vilas, and Oneida Counties.

“With the abuser being home and them being home, the opportunities for them use their phones and their internet or get out and come see us was just not there,” said Shields.

Then the safer at home order lifted, and calls started coming back in and kept coming back in.

Shields told WXPR she believes the volume calls is greater now than in pre-pandemic times.

“We’ve had a lot of clients looking for shelter, looking for just somebody to talk to about what they’re going through,” said Shields.

It was a similar story for Embrace which provides domestic violence assistance to people in Price, Washburn, Rusk and Barron County.

WXPR talked to them back in June. Embrace said calls dropped off significantly.

Now, it has been getting a lot of calls, but few end up being clients.

“Just from what we have seen and from the people we’ve talked to. It seems a lot of it is people aren’t in a safe place to reach out for the first time,” said Embrace Domestic Violence Coordinator Alyssa Melin.

She said she has seen more cases of severe abuse during the pandemic.

“The abuser threats turn more life threatening, more severity with weapons, isolation, strangulation, those types of things,” said Melin.

Both Melin and Shields made it clear that the pandemic is not responsible for creating an abuser.

“Domestic violence didn’t start because of COVID. An abuser is an abuser. There has to be something inside them that’s going to make them do that. But certainly, being home all the time, and being out of work and financial issues and those types of things might add to the stress that might make it more prevalent,” said Shields.

Another aspect that’s been a challenge during the pandemic is reaching children.

Normally Embrace would go into schools, interact with children and teens.

Between COVID-19 restrictions and more kids doing classes remotely, Embrace has had to change how it connects with students.

“What we are offering is a weekly chat group for teens, teen survivors and then one also for adults and that’s actually been going pretty well,” said Melin.

That’s just one example of the changes both Embrace and Tri-County Council have made to protect staff and those seeking support from COVID-19.

In many cases, it means offering the same services but just doing them virtually.

One of service both organizations offer is safety planning. Shields said it looks different for everyone.

“If they have the opportunity to reach out to us, one of the biggest things we do is safety planning, so if they are in a situation, they can do certain things to keep them safe. And that’s something an individual advocate will go through with each individual cause that can look different for everybody,” said Shields.

Jessica Christianson with Embrace said even how they go about that planning has changed with the pandemic.

“It’s tough because then we really have to work with the survivor on safety planning around technology. Is it safe where they can even communicate in their home which has been just another layer on top of trying to adapt our services to virtual,” said Christianson.

No matter the changes, both Embrace and Tri-County want people to know these services are always available.

“I just want to make sure people know we’re here. Even with the COVID we’re not going anywhere, someone’s always going to answer the telephone. The shelter’s always open," said Sheilds.

If you need help and live in Forest, Vilas, or Oneida County the number for the Tri-County Council 24-hour crisis hotline is 1-800-236-1222.

If you’re in Price, Washburn, Rusk, or Barron County you can call or text 715-532-6976 for assistance.