Texas Tribune Features SafeHaven

Allyson Ortegon | Texas Tribune

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In the days leading up to Tarrant County’s order to stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic, SafeHaven — a domestic violence service provider — saw a spike in hotline calls.

But by the end of March, when millions of Texans were stuck inside to avoid spreading COVID-19 and enduring new stressors like lost wages and child care, the nonprofit noticed an even more disturbing trend: Its call numbers dropped by almost half.

“We know enough to know that doesn’t mean domestic violence disappeared,” said Kathryn Jacob, the group’s president. “That was a scary time for us.”

The reports that were coming in were also more severe. Within four days, three people who called the SafeHaven hotline had been shot and two had been stabbed, Jacob said.

On March 31, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered all Texans to stay home except for essential services, and before that, several city and county leaders had already issued similar orders. Advocacy groups say they don’t begrudge elected officials for the public health precautions but are worried the orders are unintentionally creating dangerous situations where victims are trapped around the clock with their abusers.

“This situation is particularly challenging because of the stay-at-home order to flatten the coronavirus curve,” said Emilee Whitehurst, president and CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center. “We may unfortunately be increasing the domestic violence curve.”

Domestic violence calls to Texas law enforcement are on the rise in some areas. But elsewhere, officials are seeing a drop in domestic violence calls, which they worry is attributable to people struggling to seek help when their abuser is constantly at home with them. Meanwhile, women who seek refuge at domestic violence shelters during the pandemic have the added worry of being exposed to the new coronavirus.

Seeking Shelter

Michelle got away from her abuser before Harris County issued its stay-at-home order — a period in the earlier days of the pandemic when many Texas shelters reported an initial spike in calls. She went to the Houston Area Women’s Center’s shelter in mid-March.

Michelle said she fears being exposed to the virus from staff or as new women enter the shelter.

“I don’t feel like we’re protected from this virus,” said Michelle, who is being identified by her middle name to protect her from her abuser. “It’s really scary. We could be exposed to anything.”

But her options are grim. She doesn’t want to go home. But she’s run into apartments that aren’t taking applications and limited hiring in a job market where most Texans are working from home. At the shelter, she said she doesn’t have the technology or internet to do so.

Chau Nguyen, Houston Area Women’s Center spokeswoman, said no one there has tested positive for the coronavirus. She added that the center is following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Houston Area Women’s Center has seen hotline calls rise about 40%. Whitehurst said there has been an increase in the severity of reported abuse, and more callers are requesting shelter.

To make its hotline more accessible during the pandemic, the women’s center is adding a text and chat feature, which is set to launch May 1.

Across the state, other law enforcement agencies say they’re seeing similar spikes in domestic violence reports.

In Fort Worth, the police department received 125 more domestic violence calls in the last two weeks of March than in the first two weeks of the month. The San Antonio Police Department reported an 18% increase in family violence calls this March compared with March 2019.

And in Amarillo, police Sgt. Carla Burr said the department received more than twice as many calls reporting assault by contact from a family member in the first week of April than in the last week of March.

Legal Challenges

But for some, calling the police doesn’t always seem like the best option. Many survivors are worried that police won’t be able to relocate them without breaking shelter-in-place rules. They’re also worried their abusers won’t be arrested as law enforcement scales back on misdemeanor arrests during the pandemic, said Gloria Terry, CEO of the Texas Council on Family Violence, adding that “the majority of domestic violence cases are misdemeanor cases.”

Police will still take regular action to keep domestic violence survivors safe, making arrests when necessary and coordinating with local organizations to relocate people, said Officer Buddy Calzada, Fort Worth Police Department spokesman.

“We don’t want a survivor to lose hope because courthouses are closed down or they would have to [access] to the technology,” said Heather Bellino, CEO of the Texas Advocacy Project, which provides legal services to domestic violence survivors. “We want to encourage survivors to not feel like the whole world is shut down and there are no options for them. There are options.”

If a survivor is able to move from the abusive environment, Terry said, they typically seek out a protective order that prevents the abuser from being near them. A survivor is 80% less likely to be revictimized if they have a protective order, or a legal case for separation from their abuser.

But getting a protective order in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic presents another challenge. With courtrooms shut down, domestic violence survivors seeking legal remedies are forced to use virtual courtrooms, which is problematic for people who don’t have internet access and makes it difficult for the victims to consult with their attorneys, Bellino said.

Drop in Calls

Other shelters are seeing a decline in hotline calls, though advocates say the lack of calls could be an even more disturbing sign that victims are too afraid to call for help.

Family Violence Prevention Services in San Antonio has seen a considerable decline in call volume to its hotline. In March, it received 180 calls, down from 222 calls in January, said Marta Prada Peláez, the group’s president.

Jan Langbein, CEO of the Genesis Women’s Shelter in Dallas, attributes the similar drop in the number of calls it has received to the fact that it’s not safe for women to call the hotline when the abuser is in another room in the house.

“We’re seeing a twist to where an abusive partner who has lots of choices of weapons — push, punch, slap, kick — is also adding to that arsenal the use of the coronavirus: threatening to infect her, making her wash her hands until they bleed,” Langbein said. “To use this as another excuse or weapon is just horrendous.”

Globally, nearly one in three women experience domestic violence, according to the World Health Organization. This is a “pandemic rate,” Langbein said, but there’s “no daily briefing” on domestic violence victimization.

Once the stay-at-home order is lifted, Langbein and other advocacy groups say they anticipate being “inundated” with calls and requests for shelter, support and resources.

Terry said before the coronavirus outbreak, 42% of requests for emergency shelter in Texas went unmet because of capacity — and that number goes up to 78% in metropolitan areas like Austin, Houston and Dallas.

One solution some groups have utilized has been to house survivors in hotels and for others to seek shelter with neighbors when possible. Although the Houston Area Women’s Center has always had a hotel program, Whitehurst said it has put more people in hotels because of the pandemic.

“We’re having to help navigate a new complexity,” Terry said. “With the stay-at-home order, there is a lesser opportunity to find safety, and if you’re trying to find emergency shelter, there’s less capacity to be able to serve you.”

The national domestic violence hotline operates 24/7 and can be reached at 1-800-799-7233. A list of Texas domestic violence programs in different cities can be found here.