Trigger warning: This article mentions instances of domestic violence including one survivor’s personal experience.

The spread of COVID-19 is making already vulnerable situations for domestic violence victims even worse.

Going to work used to be Lalani Reaves’ escape.

“That was the time when I was in a normal environment,” Reaves explains. “That was my time away from the hell that was going on at home. I felt safer at work than I did at home.”

Reaves spent almost four years, starting in 2007, in a physically abusive relationship with an ex-boyfriend after meeting him through work. With the recent restrictions put on society due to the COVID-19 epidemic, Reaves said she believes domestic-violence victims face a higher risk of abuse.

“I think [victims] would be more vulnerable during this period because when I would go to work, that was my escape from him,” Reaves says.

The spread of COVID-19 has closed businesses, community organizations and other areas of respite that victims of domestic violence might turn to in time of crisis. And with recent stay-at-home orders in effect at all levels of government, the potential for victims to be trapped with their abusers increases.

The streets are vacant due to stay-at-home orders across the country. (photo by Carolyn deBerry)

“Isolation is a tactic that abusers can use to gain control and power over their partners,” said Christine Murray, director of the Center for Youth and Family Partnerships at UNCG. “It’s the perfect storm because people are being encouraged to socially isolate, but it’s something that can drive up violence.”

Sonya Desai, client-services coordinator for the Family Justice Center — a countywide organization for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and elder abuse — also spoke to the ways in which stressful events can exacerbate violent relationships.

“I think that any time there’s crisis, that can escalate things in the home,” Desai said. “Things like financial crisis, even in a healthy home, can cause stress and could escalate a domestic-violence situation. If you add stress into a domestic-violence relationship, there could be consequences around that.”

Staff at the Family Justice Center say the closure of many shops and businesses, along with the stay-at-home order, means fewer people coming into the center for help.

“For many, they don’t know that they can leave for these services,” said Catherine Johnson, director of the Family Justice Center. “If you’re told you can’t leave your house unless for a doctor’s appointment or something, they may not think that domestic violence or sexual assault applies.”

However, most stay-at-home orders — the ones at the state level as well as the county and city levels — include specific exceptions for those facing domestic violence.

“Individuals whose residences are unsafe or become unsafe, such as victims of domestic violence, are permitted and urged to leave their home and stay at a safe alternative location,” states an executive order issued by Gov. Roy Cooper, as well as those by Forsyth and Guilford counties.

And while the Family Justice Center has seen a decrease in walk-in appointments, police departments for Greensboro and High Point have seen an increase in the number of domestic violence cases for March compared to the same time last year.

For Greensboro, the number of reports for aggravated domestic assault and domestic violence went up about 15 percent for the month of March compared to last year. In High Point, there was an almost 20 percent increase in the number of domestic violence-related reports. Winston-Salem saw about a 16 percent decrease in the number of calls.

Katie Ray-Jones, the chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said in an email to TCB, that from March 16-31, 1,765 of survivors calling the national hotline cited COVID-19 as a condition of their experience.

“We are hearing from survivors how COVID-19 is already being used by abusive partners to further control and abuse,” Ray-Jones said.

The local center also noted that the severity of the cases that they have seen in recent weeks has gone up.

“The cases coming in seem to be more serious,” Johnson said. “For example, they’ve had to have the police come to their house for things like strangulation and physical assault.”

One of the reasons could be the added stress of financial crisis that COVID-19 has caused.

“Major economic downturns can be a big trigger,” Murray said. “As people are losing their jobs, it can cause financial distress, and it can be dangerous for victims because it increases their vulnerability.”

According to a report by the US Department of Labor on Thursday, a staggering 6.6 million people applied for unemployment benefits last week. This is the highest number for unemployment filings since July 6, 2013 when 3.1 million people applied, according to the report.

Abusers who lose their jobs or have their hours cut back experience increased stress which may be taken out on their partners. In better times, victims may turn to their jobs as an escape away from their abuser. With no job to go to, that option is taken away.

According to a report by the US Department of Labor on Thursday, a staggering 6.6 million people applied for unemployment benefits last week. (photo by Carolyn deBerry)

“In a time when we are encouraging social isolation, that can increase the risk of future abuse,” Johnson said.

During her relationship, Reaves said that her boyfriend would repeatedly check her phone and pressure her against talking to other people. Because of this, Reaves said she distanced herself from her closest friends and family including her sister.

“I felt like because he knew we were close, that if I shared anything with her, he could possibly try to do something to her to get back at me,” Reaves said.

Eventually, Reaves filed a protective order against her boyfriend and cut ties with him after he almost ran over her 12-year-old daughter. Since then, she’s gotten married and is living a happy life.

“Things really did turn around,” she said. “It’s been totally different, completely different.”

Reaves said the best thing that friends and family members who suspect loved ones are in abusive relationships can do at this moment is to reach out.

“If you suspect someone is dealing with a domestic violence situation, stay in contact with them,” she said. “You don’t have to be invasive but as long as that person knows that you care and that you’re going to check in on them, they’re going to look forward to that and at some point they may even open up to you to allow you to help.”

There are a number of resources available for those in abusive situations.

Staff at the Family Justice Center emphasized that they are still open for appointments Monday through Friday, and anybody in need can call the 24-hour-hotline for the Family Services of the Piedmont, another community resources that helps domestic violence victims.

“People need to know that resources are still available,” Johnson said. “The crisis hotline is still open. Safety planning is still happening. Help is here and we’re creative and innovative in what that looks like, but we have not gone away, because we know people still need us.”

If you or a loved one needs help you can:

  • Call the 24/7 Family Services of the Piedmont hotline at 336.273.7273
  • Schedule a walk-in appointment at the Family Justice Center by calling 336.641.7233
  • Live chat with an advocate at the National Domestic Violence hotline here or call their 24/7 hotline at 800.799.7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522.

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