The Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order, now in its sixth week, is creating challenges for everyone. But for domestic violence survivors, it is putting their lives in more jeopardy.
Many of the resources that keep survivors safe are no longer available during the pandemic, according to Naomi Tucker, executive director of Shalom Bayit, a Berkeley-based center for domestic violence prevention within the Jewish community. And social distancing increases isolation and further imperils this already vulnerable population.
“We are seeing abusers leverage Covid-19 [and] shelter in place as a tool,” said Tucker. “[We are] hearing abusers telling their partners, ‘No, you can’t leave this house.’ Or they are forcing them to [risk their health and] go to the grocery store. It just becomes an excuse for violence.”
Abusers already use isolation as a method of control, Tucker said, as a way to distance survivors from friends, family or spiritual support.
“Now, it’s like open season for isolation,” she said. “That’s giving abusers a lot more power.”
Tucker said Shalom Bayit has been receiving fewer calls during the pandemic, a phenomenon seen at domestic violence organizations across the country. She suspects it is because survivors have less privacy and are preoccupied with the tasks of daily living. At the same time, the intensity of the calls has ratcheted up, she said, similar to 911 calls from survivors around the country.
Tucker predicts there will be a wave of calls after shelter-in-place orders scale back, when survivors can get the space they need to ask for help.
Shalom Bayit was founded 28 years ago and helps about 120 individuals annually, according to its website. It is continuing operations during the Covid-19 pandemic, offering phone counseling, support groups and safety planning, and some Bay Area shelters remain open. But other key resources are no longer accessible.
In normal times, survivors can use the courts to seek legal recourse, such as altering agreements or seeking restitution. Most California courts are now closed, while others are only offering services for emergency situations, such as restraining orders, Tucker said.
Tucker shared the situation of one woman who is in a shared custody agreement with her abuser. The woman, who does not drive, has to travel long distances by public transit for visitation exchanges. She’s disabled, and traveling could compromise her health. But she is required to follow the court order as it stands.
“She’s basically choosing between disobeying a court order [and disobeying] a shelter-in-place order,” said Tucker, calling the options “two very terrifying dangers.”
The rocky financial situations many are facing right now can also hamper progress some survivors have made. Without a source of income, Tucker worries that survivors who have finally left their abusers, but who recently have lost their jobs, may be forced to return for financial support.
The changes at home also affect the children. Schools are another resource that is no longer available, according to clinical social worker and child abuse expert Julie Robbins, who said many child abuse cases are discovered by school counselors and teachers.
Some adult survivors also find refuge at their child’s school, said Robbins, who has been a frequent collaborator with Shalom Bayit over the years.
Robbins called the current situation a “pressure cooker” for families prone to abuse who no longer have safe spaces or stress outlets.
“If you’ve lost your job, and you’re a victim, you’ve lost an outlet to gain some freedom,” Robbins said. “It’s causing escalation across the board.”
Tucker and Robbins agree that even families who are not experiencing violence and abuse, but where the potential is present, could be vulnerable to harm.
“Shelter in place puts all families under stress,” Robbins said. “We’re all at our wit’s end, we all have cabin fever. That’s going to make the pressure to hurt children or hurt your partner even higher.” A related concern, she said, is that alcohol consumption in the Bay Area is 42 percent higher since shelter in place started, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Alcohol is known to be a major contributor to domestic violence.
Shalom Bayit is adapting to the current reality, Tucker said.
“One shift we made immediately [is] doing well-being checks on all of our clients,” she said. “We normally won’t do outgoing calls. We don’t know if someone is safe to receive a call. In this case, we felt the benefit outweighs those concerns.”
Tucker also said her organization is revisiting client safety plans, which are individualized strategies that Shalom Bayit develops to help survivors manage their situations and stay out of danger.
S.F. Congregation Emanu-El Rabbi Ryan Bauer, a co-chair of Shalom Bayit’s Rabbinic Advisory Council, said one way to help is by frequently checking in on friends and family who may be at risk of abuse. If any share that they are experiencing domestic violence, Bauer recommends first making sure they can talk privately, then assuring them it is not their fault and suggesting they call Shalom Bayit.
“There are resources for you,” Bauer said. “You are not isolated.”