Domestic violence reports dropped during pandemic lock down, but fear continued
While coronavirus raged outside in the months following the state’s emergency shelter-in-place orders, domestic violence advocates described a pandemic inside for victims who were trapped between their fear of the virus and fear of their abusers.
Data from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office shows a stark drop off in the number of domestic violence and battery cases reported in Sonoma Valley during shelter-in-place order that began in March 2020, bucking international trends that documented a rise in partner violence across the country and the globe during that same period.
Advocates at the Youth Women’s Christian Association of Sonoma County say the low numbers locally are not a result of decreased domestic violence, but likely due to an environment of dread -- both of a partner’s violent ways and a deadly pandemic.
“There's a lot of fear around what was outside your doors, but the difficult nature of the work that we do is that we are aware that there is fear behind closed doors as well,” Madeleine Keegan O’Connell said, the CEO of YWCA of Sonoma County.
YWCA 24/7 domestic violence crisis hotline received a similar number of calls in 2020 as it did in 2019, despite the drop in the number of incidents reported to police in 2020.
“What you have here is the perfect storm of negative events in someone's life,” O’Connell said about the economic strain that people faced, such as housing and job loss. “So someone whose relationship might have been strained and unhappy, frankly, may have moved into a more dire result.”
O’Connell likened the effects of the pandemic on domestic violence victims as similar to those of a natural disaster. During times of emergency, sticking together often seems like the best scenario, she said. And so during the early months of the pandemic, many victims clung to abusive relationships out of fear and a lack of other options.
The pandemic caused financial and housing insecurity for many people through the U.S. as the economy contracted and forced millions of people out of work. The Sonoma County unemployment rate jumped from 3.3% in March 2020 to more than 15% in April, and the local economy is still in recovery.
The financial strain made independence more difficult to obtain, said Jessica Nunn Provost, a domestic violence service manager at the YWCA, limiting the ability for victims to leave their abuser.
“It was not a surprise that numbers went down because when you're trapped and literally cannot leave, you don’t have a safe moment to reach out for help,” Provost said of the drop in police reports. “You really are at home with the perpetrator.”
Yet the data also tells a story about how reports to the police for domestic violence coincided with loosening restrictions and opening up of the economy. As the lock downs lifted in 2021, calls to YWCA’s 24/7 domestic violence helpline increased by 46% over the previous year, according to statistics. O’Connell said it was caused by a pent up demand for services in the pandemic.
“We actually did anticipate that it might go down, but then anticipated that it would go up eventually as restrictions eased, and that's exactly what did occur,” Provost said. “The acuity of the needs people were calling with were dramatically higher.”
Provost described victims who said violence became more severe during the pandemic, including death threats. Additionally, the pandemic’s affect on the social and financial aspects of victims caused a new population of women to seek aid from the YWCA. In one case, a woman who had occasionally called YWCA was forced to take action against her abuser when they physically threatened the safety of her child
“When the violence was directed at her children and her abuser laid hands on their young boy, she did call the police,” O’Connell said. “And once she did that, she said to me that that was the point of which there was no going back.”
Locally, reports of domestic violence began to tick up again in August -- with five incidents of battery and three reports of domestic violence in Sonoma Valley. That number rose again the following month.
Provost emphasized that the effects of the pandemic went far beyond public health, exacerbating the inequities throughout the community, and making the most vulnerable populations even more at-risk.
“When we’re boiling it down, it really it comes down to the social determinants of health for people,” Provost said. “And I think the inequities the pandemic highlighted, for domestic violence survivors is really important too.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence and in need of resources, contact the YWCA of Sonoma County’s 24/7 confidential crisis line at 707-546-1234 or go to ywcasc.org/what-we-do/domestic-violence-services.