Spike in domestic violence victims in need of protection as COVID quarantines lift

ByTed Oberg and Sarah Rafique via KTRK logo
Friday, June 12, 2020
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Spike in domestic violence victims in need of protection as COVID quarantines lift

GET HELP: If you need help getting out of a domestic violence situation, call the Houston Area Women's Center 24/7 hotline at 713-528-2121 or call AVDA at 713-224-9911. You can also click here to chat with an advocate online. If you are deaf or hard of hearing and need help, call 713-528-3625.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As soon as her husband left for work, she called her sibling and asked for a ride. She packed up her child's diapers and blanket, and gathered a few photos but left everything else behind at the home in Katy.

That day, after three years together, she finally left her abusive husband.

"I was really scared that he was gonna show up, but I'm glad he didn't and I'm glad I was able to leave," the woman told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg. "I felt safe; scared, but safe. And it's okay to feel scared. Sometimes I'm even scared now that I'm going to see him at the store, but it's okay. I know I'm better now and my kid is also in a better place."

The domestic violence survivor, who asked not to be identified since her case is ongoing, left her husband weeks before Harris County's stay-at-home order went into effect in mid-March.

Before she left, she told 13 Investigates her husband had already isolated her from her friends and family. And although she left her abuser in time, other families were forced families to stay at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advocates feared it was easier for abusers to take advantage of the situation and isolate victims even more. Since March, the number of calls for help from domestic violence victims as well as requests for protective orders and survivors seeking safe housing has been on the rise.

In January, there were only 24 protective orders filed by AVDA attorneys, according to the nonprofit, a nonprofit that provides free legal aid to domestic violence survivors. That number doubled in March, when the stay at home order was announced. And, in May, just before the stay at home order was lifted, there were at least 107 protective orders filed by AVDA attorneys that month - four times as many as January.

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Safe havens for survivors of abuse also expanded to local hotels as socially distanced shelters began filling up.

"Whether we have COVID or not, domestic violence is happening and it's going to happen," said Maisha Colter, CEO of AVDA, or Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse. "COVID again allows the psyche of the person who does the abuse to feel free to behave in the way that they were ordinarily going to behave anyway, but then they have an excuse of the stress related to COVID," like finances and job loss.

AVDA including to the woman 13 Investigates spoke with, said there was an increase in calls for help after the stay at home order was announced on March 13 as more victims became concerned they would be stuck at home with their abusers.

The calls dropped off a few weeks later as victims lost access to resources, but the abuse didn't stop. Now that the stay-at-home order has been lifted - and victims are no longer stuck with their abusers 24/7 - domestic violence survivors are more likely to reach out for help, Colter said.

"Safe at home was not safe for everyone," said Emilee Whitehurst, President and CEO of the Houston Area Women's Center. "We are increasingly seeing an increase in the levels of violence that people are reporting. ... it's possible that because things are loosening up, we'll continue to see more people having the latitude or freedom to reach out. Whereas before, they were under the control or domain of their abuser.

The Houston Area Women's Center said there's not only been an increase in calls to its 24-hour hotline for domestic violence victims, but also an increase in requests for shelter.

HAWC typically averages between 47 and 50 domestic violence calls daily. The calls spiked in April, where they averaged around 60 to 80 calls a day. Calls even exceeded 100 some days.

"We saw callers who said they were afraid to leave because they said they didn't want to expose themselves or their children to the virus and the abusers leveraging that against them and using that fear of infection to further control," Whitehurst said.

Calls started to decline the longer people were staying at home, Colter said.

"What we were concerned about is that people were in dangerous circumstances, but afraid to convey that information to anybody who would be able to help them," Colter said. "We were concerned because kids were home in those situations. Usually the school is a very good ally, a place where kids can identify mommy and daddy got in a fight last night and people would respond, so that was removed."

'I didn't believe it'

Before her child was born, the woman from Katy said she went to the hospital to check on her baby after she says her husband roughed her up during her second trimester. A nurse asked if she felt safe going back home and when she said "no" a social worker visited her.

"She's the first person that ever told me I was in an abusive relationship," the woman said. "I kind of wanted to open my eyes because I kind of figured she was right, but then he went into the room and he seemed so worried for our child so I'm like, 'no, he's probably a good dad. He's going to be a good dad once my child is born. He's going to change."

He didn't.

The social worker warned her that it might get worse after her child was born. She was right.

"I didn't believe it," the woman said. "She actually said you can end up getting hurt or your child can end up getting hurt. She said there's been cases where the father accidentally kills their child. She's like, 'do you want that for yours?' And I'm like, 'no.'"

But, it still wasn't enough to convince her to leave. Her husband made sure they were together 24/7, even taking her to work with him sometimes.

The day she finally had the strength to leave was when she says she was beaten so badly, he didn't want her leaving the house.

"He's like, for this week, you're not going anywhere. You're staying here. I don't want anybody to see your bruises," she said. "Because of that, I'm thankful because now that's how I was able to call for help because if he would have taken me with him, then i wouldn't have been able to call anybody."

Even though the stay-at-home order has been lifted, unemployment numbers are still up and people are staying at home.

Now, the woman wonders how she could have reached out for help if she was constantly under the same roof, or in the same room with her abuser.

For victims who feel trapped at home, she is encouraging others to call someone the first chance they get.

"Whenever they go shower, whenever they go to the store, whenever they go run and errand, call for help," she said, because if you don't "nothing guarantees you things are going to get better."

Similar to natural disasters, Colter said she expects the number of victims reaching out for help to continue climbing as victims stuck in quarantine now have more access to help.

Whitehurst said calls to the Houston Area Women's Center have continued increasing throughout the entire pandemic. She said she hopes who were too scared or didn't have access to reach out while at home will make that call now.

"We are seeing an increase in calls," she said. "We are housing more people safely than we normally do and that is certainly because there is an escalation of violence in our community."

'Can't let your fear stop you'

The Katy woman 13 Investigates spoke with said she always wondered how women could stay with abusive partners. She never thought it was something that could happen to her. But, it did, and it didn't happen overnight.

It started out with verbal and emotional abuse, but quickly turned physical. Her husband would bang her against the wall and pull her hair so hard she'd lose chunks of it whenever she brushed it.

"The last thing that I was able to take was him slapping me and kicking me. That's when I knew that things were just gonna keep getting worse. One day he was going to end up punching me," she said.

He had never done those things before, but with her child watching her husband's every move, she knew it was time to leave.

"Just seeing that she was there and hearing her cry," the woman said. "She's the one that gave me the strength."

Colter said it's important for people who think they may be victims of domestic abuse to recognize they need to call and ask for help.

"We understand that there have been obstacles that have come their way in regard to trying to seek services, but believe us when we say we want to help," Colter said. "Sometimes these things escalate at a rate that (victims) can't even assess themselves, so there are many people that have succumbed to domestic violence, meaning that they lost their lives because they didn't assess the danger that they were in."

For victims who have been thinking of leaving their abusers for some time, Whitehurst encourages them to call their hotline and speak with someone who can help them safely navigate what to do.

"Leaving is the most dangerous time for a person and if people say that they're planning to leave, that can put them in danger, so we really encourage people to call us for whatever reason, even if they're just concerned about the dynamics in the relationship."

The woman we spoke with said she was too embarrassed to see her family. Every time they asked if she was okay, she would lie. And when they invited her to family gatherings her husband wouldn't let her go either, so she'd lie and say she was busy or out of town.

She stopped talking to her friends because her boyfriend told her too. She had no one to confide in.

The woman said her family always considered her to be strong so that added to her embarrassment in admitting her husband was abusing her. Just months separated from her abuser, she said she's still embarrassed but encourages others not to let that get in the way of asking for help.

"You can't let your fear stop you from leaving or you can't can't your fear stop you from asking for help," she said.

Supporting victims

Whitehurst said it's important for friends and family members who think their loved one might be in an abusive situation to be careful with their approach.

"It's very painful to watch and it is so easy to end up even inadvertently blaming the victim, and thinking, why aren't they leaving? What, what is the matter with them? Why aren't they getting out? And potentially asking them to get out in ways that actually put the burden on the victim instead of shifting the accountability," Whitehurst said. "What is so helpful is just to always make sure you let that ... that victim or survivor know that you're there for them, that you support them, that you do not judge them in any way and that you believe them and that you want to be there to help them and never give up."

With the help of AVDA, a protective order was served against the husband of the survivor we spoke with and she's now living in a safe environment with family.

"It feels good to know that I'm finally out of it," she said. "It feels really good, but to even remember the events, that's the hard part."

Below are some signs of abuse, directly from the National Domestic Abuse Hotline's website:

Tells you that you can never do anything right

Shows extreme jealousy of your friends and time spent away

Keeps you or discourages you from seeing friends or family members

Insults, demeans or shames you with put-downs

Controls every penny spent in the household

Takes your money or refuses to give you money for necessary expenses

Looks at you or acts in ways that scare you

Controls who you see, where you go, or what you do

Prevents you from making your own decisions

Tells you that you are a bad parent or threatens to harm or take away your children

Prevents you from working or attending school

Destroys your property or threatens to hurt or kill your pets

Intimidates you with guns, knives or other weapons

Pressures you to have sex when you don't want to or do things sexually you're not comfortable with

Pressures you to use drugs or alcohol

GET HELP: To reach out for help, call the Houston Area Women's Center 24/7 hotline at 713-528-2121 or call AVDA at 713-224-9911. You can also click here to chat with an advocate online. If you are deaf or hard of hearing and need help, call 713-528-3625.