Domestic violence on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic

Illustration courtesy
of Women’s Funding Network
The Signal for Help, or the Violence at Home Signal for Help, is a gesture that can be used by an individual to alert others that they feel threatened or need help in person or over a video call. It was created as a tool to combat the rise in domestic violence cases around the world.

By John Finefrock
Staff Writer

Domestic violence in Pagosa Springs is on the rise due to factors associated with COVID-19.

Carmen Hubbs, executive director for Rise Above Violence, a local nonprofit that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, recently gave a speech to the Pagosa Springs Rotary Club outlining how the COVID-19 pandemic has sown conditions for domestic violence to increase.

“For people who are experiencing domestic violence, the mandatory stay at home orders for COVID-19 have trapped them in their homes with the very person they are most at risk of – their abusive partner,” Hubbs’ notes for the speech read, which she sent to The SUN.

The notes continue, “Historically during times of national or world-wide crisis (natural disasters, war), domestic and sexual violence has escalated. COVID-19 has been no different. [Domestic violence] cases tripled in China in February. France saw a 30% increase. Nationally, there have been spikes upward of 30% as well, and here in Pagosa, Rise saw an unprecedented [demand for our services].”

In an interview Tuesday, Hubbs outlined how the demand for Rise’s services have increased from January to April of this year compared to January through April of 2019.

She explained that, comparatively, there has been:

• A 55 percent increase in the overall number of services provided by Rise.

• A 51 percent increase in crisis calls.

• Triple the number of counseling calls. In the first four months of 2019, Rise had 70 counseling calls. This year, it has had 190.

• A 25 percent increase in domestic violence services and an 88 percent increase in services related to sexual assault.

Hubbs contrasted crisis calls versus counseling calls in her interview.

“We define crisis as they’re in immediate danger, their safety is being compromised,” she said. “Either [their safety] has already been compromised and they just got done being assaulted or an assault feels very imminent to them.”

About counseling calls, she said, “A lot of people call and say, ‘I don’t know, I’m just not feeling safe.’ We get a lot of, ‘Is this abuse?’ So, their instincts are kicking in, but they’re not sure if it’s [domestic abuse] and then their self-doubt comes in … So they need to process what they’re feeling.”

She added, “[We’ve had] nearly 200 counseling calls [in 2020], so people were really needing to talk. They were really needing to process what they were going through or what they were feeling, what their fears were … So, these were people that weren’t in crisis, but they were concerned or they just needed support and someone to talk to.”

Hubbs’ speech notes further expand on the issues surrounding domestic violence and COVID-19.

“The Coronavirus has very effectively HELPED abusers,” the notes read. “While we absolutely support and understand the need to follow stay at home orders and social distancing, for victims, it creates a nightmare.

“Isolation is one of the #1 tactics [abusive partners use to gain control]. Survivors are continuing to be separated from support systems in an already isolative situation prior to COVID-19. They are describing the use of COVID-19 as additional scare and control tactics to keep them at home. Before they were tracked and stalked, now they are at home under constant surveillance.

“Another common tactic – not allowing medical care for fear of exposure, not being allowed to use protective gear, or their partner refusing to use protective gear when out of the home, increasing fears of exposure and infection.

“Alcohol Abuse – They are describing an increase in alcohol use by their abusive partners, making them feel more unsafe,” the notes read.

“The one thing that we always want to be really clear about is that alcohol doesn’t cause the violence, but what it does is it inhibits people’s abilities to be more reasonable,” said Hubbs, adding, “Their inhibitions then are lessened, therefore our clients consistently say, ‘Once [my partner is] on beer three, I’m scared, and because I know that if they keep drinking my risk continues to increase.’”

Hubbs also explained there is a misconception about Rise that the organization always advocates for victims to leave their partners, but stressed safety is always the main priority.

“We don’t advocate for divorce, we don’t advocate for splitting families up, we just advocate for safety and what safety looks like,” she said. “Whether you remain in a relationship or out of a relationship, we consistently plan around what safety looks like, whatever that choice may be.”

Hubbs noted that financial abuse is common, and that abusive partners rationalize their behaviors by saying “I’m just trying to take care of you.”

“[Financial abuse] comes off very subtly as, ‘I just want to take care of you,’ is what an abusive partner comes off initially as saying, but then when abuse starts, then a survivor realizes, ‘I don’t have a single credit card in my name, none of the cars are in my name,’ and an abusive partner will say, ‘If you try to leave in my car I will call the police’,” she said, adding “[When victims] don’t have access to credit cards or to money, the prospect of trying to leave immediately to go to a hotel to be safe is impossible … That’s the typical way is that it comes off as,‘I just want to support you, I don’t want you to have to worry about money. I take care of the bills, I do all of this,’ but when the abuse starts, then they very effectively feel very trapped financially if they don’t have access to funds.”

Hubbs explained that 80 to 92 percent of the time a domestic violence victim is female, but that Rise has “served and will always serve whoever the victim is: male, female, transgender, any ethnicity, any race, any socioeconomic class.”

Hubbs also commented on ways that victims can ask for help, even in close proximity to their abusive partners.

One way is by saying “Mask-19” to pharmacists or Rise advocates, who should be trained to recognize that phrasing as a request for help.

Another is by using the “Violence at Home Signal for Help” hand gesture, which can be used on video chats or in person to alert others that they feel threated or need help. 

Some of the services Rise provides, available in English or Spanish, include:

• Immediate crisis intervention available 24 hours a day by calling 264-9075.

• An online chat feature available on the group’s website, riseaboveviolence.org.

• A personalized safety plan that’s unique to every individual and situation.

• A court advocate to explain the criminal justice system and assist with civil restraining orders.

• Emergency transportation to a safe shelter. 

More information about all of Rise’s free and confidential services can be found at riseaboveviolence.org.

This story was posted on September 2, 2020.