At the start of the pandemic, law enforcement and domestic violence hotlines the world over saw a surge in family violence. This year, incidents of domestic and sexual violence have continued to rise in El Paso, topping the highs of 2020.
The high stress, increased isolation, loss of child care and financial uncertainty associated with the pandemic created a perfect storm of conditions linked to increased risk of family violence. And with stay-at-home orders in place, many found themselves trapped at home with their abusers.
During the first month of Texas’ stay-at-home orders, state law enforcement agencies experienced a 16% spike in domestic violence reports, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence. In El Paso, calls to the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence’s 24-hour crisis hotline jumped by 34%.
More than a year later, some pandemic pressures have eased. But family and sexual violence in El Paso has continued to creep up.
Between January and August of 2021, there were about 2,600 family violence incidents reported to the El Paso Police Department — a 5% increase from the same period in 2020. The city’s 400 reports of sexual assault also rose by nearly 3% compared to the first eight months of 2020, according to EPPD data from CASFV.
“The stressors of COVID alone do not cause family violence,” said Gloria Aguilera Terry, executive director of the Texas Council on Family Violence. “But when those stressors are overlaid on an unhealthy relationship, they act as accelerants.”
A deadly year
In Texas, domestic violence has also grown more lethal. As homicides rose throughout much of the country, 2020 saw 228 Texans killed in domestic violence incidents — a 23% rise from 2019 and the highest number in a decade, according to the TCFV’s annual report on family violence fatalities, which analyzes law enforcement data from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Six of those deaths occurred in El Paso County. And with 2021 not yet over, domestic violence-related deaths in El Paso have already outstripped those of 2020. As of August 2021, eight El Pasoans were killed in a family violence incident, according to the CASFV’s police department data.
While Hispanic women experienced the highest number of fatalities statewide, Black women were disproportionately represented in that total, according to the report. While just 13% of Texas’ population, they made up 23% of femicide victims.
The report noted that 2020 did not just break records for domestic violence incidents; it was also a record year for gun sales. In 2020, 120 women were killed with guns in domestic violence incidents, compared to 94 in 2019.
COVID’s impact on El Paso shelters
According to the TCFV report, the most dangerous time for someone in an abusive relationship is when they try to leave. They not only run an increased risk of lethal violence at the hands of their partner; they may also lose financial stability or experience homelessness. Throughout the pandemic, women — who make up the large majority of domestic violence survivors — experienced higher job losses than men.
To make matters worse, the shelters that women turn to when needing to escape have suffered steep losses in funding and staff over the course of the pandemic, limiting their capacity to respond to an escalating crisis.
That reduced capacity can have life-altering consequences: The TCFV report found that more than 40% of adult domestic violence victims had previously been turned away from a shelter due to lack of space.
In El Paso, the YWCA’s Transitional Living Center, which shelters women and children experiencing homelessness, lost $300,000 in funding over the course of the pandemic — the combined result of funding cuts and fundraising events canceled due to Covid safety concerns.
The TLC continues to provide basic services and has now returned to full capacity. It is less able to offer amenities such as financial literacy classes that help women build economic and emotional independence, said Kayla Suarez, a YWCA spokesperson. Most of the families that come to TLC are fleeing domestic violence, she said.
According to the TCFV, nine in 10 Texas survivors who’ve sought out family violence shelters experience homelessness as a direct result of fleeing their abusive relationship. Nearly half of survivors experience homelessness that’s unrelated to their escape.
This was the case for El Pasoan Priscella Guardado, 26, who has experienced intermittent periods of homelessness since 2017, when she left Los Angeles with her two children to escape her abusive partner. After her apartment gave her a 24-hour eviction notice in late June 2021, she and her kids moved into the TLC.
On Friday, the YWCA’s annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes week, part of October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, will end with “Paint the Town Red,” an outdoor fundraiser hoping to make up the $300,000 shortfall.
The Center Against Sexual and Family Violence, meanwhile, is operating at reduced staff capacity due to a labor market that has become increasingly tight. Two employees left CASFV for higher wages offered by federal government contractors, and now travel with unaccompanied migrant children to shelters in other parts of the country.
A wide-ranging crisis
“This is not an issue between two people. This is an issue of public safety that is a danger to anyone in the public,” Aguilera Terry said of domestic violence.
To illustrate, she noted that 31 of the 228 Texans killed in domestic violence incidents last year were not the direct targets of violence. They were friends, family members and bystanders. At least eight law enforcement officers were killed in 2020 responding to domestic violence calls, she said.
“At the same time,” Aguilera Terry added, “I have to tell you that if we don’t do more in the prevention area, and leave the response only to the criminal justice system, we’re waiting too long.”
During Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, those working against family violence want El Pasoans to expand their view of who might be affected by domestic violence, and the different forms that violence might take.
“These could be your friends, these can be your co-workers,” said Elizabeth O’Hara, an organizer for Paint the Town Red who is also a regional community relations manager for Texas Gas Service. “This might be somebody that you’re related to.”
Women of color are disproportionately impacted by domestic violence. Members of the LGBTQ+ community can also experience higher rates of partner violence than women and men in heterosexual relationships, according to the TCFV report. People identifying as transgender are twice as likely to experience relationship abuse.
“People have this very set-in-stone vision of what domestic violence is or who it happens to,” Suarez said. “In people’s minds, domestic violence is brutal, ending up in a hospital with a black eye, bloody — and it’s that of course, but it’s subtle sometimes, too.”
The abuse Guardado experienced was both bloody and subtle — bloody as a result of the physical violence she suffered, which she hopes her young sons don’t remember. Subtle because it also took the form of child neglect — like when her partner resisted vaccinating their sons, or fixing their oldest child’s cavities, she said.
Both forms of abuse compelled her to leave. Five years later, she doesn’t think often of that time in her life. But that doesn’t mean it’s behind her.
“I don’t know how I could get closure from something like that,” she said. “I wish (people) understood that I was hurting.”