Increased mental health stressors and ongoing “stay home” orders during the COVID-19 pandemic are increasing the risk of family violence, experts say.
“We tend to think that (home is) the safest place for people to be, but for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, that’s not necessarily their reality,” said Sandra Garcia, executive director of El Paso’s Center Against Sexual and Family Violence. “Because they’re obviously staying with that particular individual, stress levels are increasing, the tension is building, and it’s almost the perfect formula for there to be an incident of physical assault.”
And a key child abuse early warning system — schools and teachers — are having only virtual connections with their students, making it more difficult to spot signs of abuse.
“When you look at child abuse, who are the ones who typically catch it? The people who frequently make the medical community, the police, or child protective services (CPS) aware of concerns are going to be school teachers, counselors, and nurses. With children not being in school, we’re missing a huge part of how we usually catch these cases,” said Dr. Angelica Machorro, an El Paso pediatrician who also is the medical director for C.A.R.E.S. clinic, El Paso’s only child abuse clinic.
Global domestic violence increase during pandemic
Referring to the surge in domestic violence as a “shadow pandemic,” a new report by the United Nations examines how sexual and physical violence by an intimate partner has intensified around the world linked to COVID-19, and is likely to increase further.
In France, domestic violence reports have grown by 30 percent since March 17, and in Argentina by 25 percent since March 20.
Domestic violence is consistently underreported by victims. The UN estimates that less than 40 percent of women who experience domestic violence will report the crime or seek help.
In El Paso, the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence reports that domestic abuse hotline calls have increased by 34 percent between the first week of March and the first week of April.
Declines in reporting in recent weeks
Machorro, who also serves as president of the CASFV board, said health-care providers often spot issues of family violence. But the medical community in El Paso has seen a decline in non-emergency patients, due to fear of virus exposure at medical facilities. “When you have less patients, there’s less of a chance that you’re going to catch abuse,” she said.
The Child Protective Services Texas Abuse Hotline has seen a reduction in calls compared to this month last year, and the El Paso Police Department has had a 6 percent reduction in family violence reports between March 16 and April 4.
El Paso leaders working with abuse victims suspect the actual numbers are much higher, and that many victims of abuse don’t know where to turn in a time of “social distancing.”
Escobar plans telephone town hall on domestic violence, mental health
Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso spoke about the family violence issue on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday.
“In El Paso we saw a decline in protective orders in the month of March. And we know that’s because our county courthouse had to close because of the coronavirus. People, mostly women, were trapped. They didn’t know how to get to a lawyer, didn’t know how to get to court to get a protective order,” Escobar said on the show.
The congresswoman is planning to host a telephone town hall about how the community can better address family violence and mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Through my calls with experts and local authorities, it is clear that the social distancing needed to combat the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the challenges of domestic violence and mental health illness prevention in El Paso,” she said in a statement to El Paso Matters. “This is another blow to a community that continues to recover from the trauma experienced after the August 3rd terrorist attack and works to overcome stigma and provide families and victims with the resources they need.”
How you can help
Garcia and Machorro said the most important thing people can do right now is to keep in touch with loved ones and friends and make sure they’re doing OK. “That call to check on someone can make a world of difference, possibly rescuing them from a bad situation,” Machorro said.
García recommends video calling if you’re checking in on a loved one and suspect there is an abusive situation in their home. “If something seems weird, or you’ve always had that gnawing feeling in the back of your head that something’s wrong — check on those individuals. And preferably check on them via some type of video conferencing, to be able to physically see how their demeanor is.”
She said the 24-hour hotline for domestic violence and sexual assault is not only for those who have experienced abuse, but also for anyone in need of information about domestic violence support or resources. This includes loved ones and friends of those experiencing abuse. The Hope-line is open 24 hours a day, at 915-593-7300 or 800-727-0511.
The CASFV emergency shelter continues to be open and offers food, clothing, and a safe place to those seeking help from domestic violence, and is taking extra precautions to prevent COVID-19 among shelter residents.