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What ‘shelter at home’ means for those who aren’t safe there

Many Americans are staying home amid the coronavirus pandemic. But what does that mean for those who aren’t safe where they live? John Yang talks to Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, about how abusers may leverage a broader societal crisis to exact further control and why physical distancing puts victims of abuse at even greater risk.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With so many Americans now staying home, the pandemic continues to have a major impact on nearly all aspects of our lives.

    But one area getting less attention is how that isolation can exacerbate the problem of domestic violence.

    John Yang has a closer look.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, in past times of stress, like 9/11, the economic downturn of 2008 and Hurricane Katrina, experts say that the intensity and frequency of domestic abuse has gone up.

    Katie Ray-Jones is the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. She joins us by Skype from Austin, Texas.

    Katie, thanks so much for being with us.

    In the current situation, the current environment, what concerns you most? What are you most worried about?

  • Katie Ray-Jones:

    Yes, I think, for us, John, what we're most worried about at the National Domestic Violence Hotline is knowing that many victim survivors are currently living in isolation with their abusive partner.

    And their ability to seek help or guidance is significantly limited, knowing that, oftentimes, abusive partners are observing phone calls or watching what material someone might be looking at on their device.

    So, we're really concerned right now, knowing that history has shown us, with an increased severity of abuse, an increased frequency of abuse, that many survivors are currently in dire situations.

  • John Yang:

    To what extent is this social distancing to try to stop the virus spreading contributing or aiding and abetting people who commit this violence and abuse?

  • Katie Ray-Jones:

    It's a great question.

    What we know is that oftentimes abusive partners will leverage something happening in society as a further means to isolate, create fear, intimidate or coerce a victim. We have already started to hear stories from survivors who are reaching out to the hot line who are indicating that their abusive partner has indicated that they can't go to work, they can't see family, they can't see friends, as a means to what they feel is further isolate them, and leveraging COVID-19 as a means to do that.

    We have already heard some really distressing stories, where one woman shared that, you know, her community, where she's currently residing doesn't have shelter-in-place protocols.

    Her employer was indicating it was safe for her to go to work, and her abusive partner essentially said, you're not going. And when she stated she was, he actually took the firearm out in their home and began to load the firearm.

    And she said that this is not something he had ever done, that they have an abusive relationship, but he'd never brought a firearm up before. And this was causing her really great concern.

    So we know that, at times, when there's fear, misinformation in society, that, oftentimes, people who have control issues, power issues, they may exacerbate those dynamics in their abusive relationship.

  • John Yang:

    How is this complicating your work? For instance, are shelters operating? Are they worried about social distancing in that sense, too?

  • Katie Ray-Jones:

    Yes, so we have already seen our ability to even connect some survivors to shelters or exit strategies be greatly impacted.

    We know shelters are going to great lengths to deeply sanitize shelters, keep existing residents safe. So, it absolutely makes sense that one's ability to continue to do intakes, to take in new clients may be limited.

    We have heard from survivors who were really holding out for their custody hearing, their divorce hearing, or protective order hearing, that those are being impacted.

    So a lot of the dynamics, in terms of systems that survivors rely on, and what we would say many of the tools that we're keeping in a survivor's toolbox, feel like they're disappearing rapidly. And so that's really concerning, on top of what might be happening in their home already.

  • John Yang:

    And talk about — you mentioned this before, but I want to sort of expand. I want you to expand on it, the idea that when you're isolated with someone who may be abusing you, you can't necessarily call the hot line and seek help.

  • Katie Ray-Jones:

    Yes, I think that is one of the most distressing things about this.

    We know and we hear from survivors, pre-COVID-19, that their behaviors were being monitored down to spyware being installed on their computers and watching what they're looking at in terms of material online.

    So, when you're in close proximity to someone, having the ability to make a phone call and sharing the very intimate details of abusive relationship may be really significantly impacted, which is why we're really trying to encourage friends, family, neighbors to contact the hot line and get information about resources, safety planning strategies that might be available for someone, because you may be their only lifeline right now to information and help and even emotional support.

  • John Yang:

    And with social distancing, could it be that people don't know that it's going on, people, friends, neighbors may not know, and may not know to call to reach out for help?

  • Katie Ray-Jones:

    Yes, I think, oftentimes, domestic violence is the secret that happens behind closed doors and it's not our problem.

    And so we're really encouraging folks to understand that, right now, we need everybody to be activated, to be aware of what's happening around them, so, if they are hearing sounds coming out of their neighbor's house, being thoughtful about what that might mean.

    Now, sometimes, calling the police may not be an option. The hot line is here to serve anyone who is concerned about someone, if they themselves are not directly being impacted, so really encouraging people to get educated and leverage the hot line as a resource to increase your knowledge about safety planning, because you may be safety planning with your neighbor right now.

  • John Yang:

    Are there similar concerns about abuse against and violence against children, as against people, partners in intimate relationships?

  • Katie Ray-Jones:


    And so while our mission is really focused on intimate partner violence, we have had individuals reach out indicating concerns with abuse happening at home towards children, and we're providing support around that area as well.

    The other piece, we know, is that children are often leveraged in abusive relationships. And so kids can be often in the midst of a violent situation, where things might be being thrown and the kids accidentally get in the crossfire of what's happening.

    So we're wanting to safety plan around kids in the home as well and what that might be looking like, really taking the whole family as a unit to think through what safety planning in place is possible, what exit strategies may be available to a survivor, as well as safety planning for kids.

  • John Yang:

    Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, thank you very much.

  • Katie Ray-Jones:

    Thank you, John.

  • John Yang:

    And for anyone in our audience, if you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, please call the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE. That's 1-800-799-7233.

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