By Greg Barnes
In Wake and many other counties across North Carolina, emergency calls to domestic violence shelters have remained relatively flat as the coronavirus continues its spread.
And that has advocates for abuse victims extremely worried.
The state has ordered residents to stay in their homes. Many people have lost their jobs. Children are out of school. For some, food is scarce. Meanwhile, alcohol sales and the number of new gun permits have soared.
Combined, advocates for the abused say, those and other factors have ignited a fuse that is expected to cause domestic violence cases to explode in the coming weeks.
The advocates speak from experience. They recall what happened during the Great Recession in the mid-2000s and after the numerous hurricanes that have rocked the state and other parts of the country.
The World Health Organization reports that domestic violence cases typically skyrocket after disasters, and figures from the U.S. Department of Justice show that domestic violence now makes up more than half of the violent crimes committed in the country.
Advocates for domestic violence victims in North Carolina say COVID-19 could bring even more widespread and dire consequences for a support system that is underfunded and ill-equipped even in the best of times.
“Anytime there’s elevated stress and elevated hardship, there’s elevated risk,” said Carrianne Fisher, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “And then add the social isolation, which just magnifies everything.”
Allison Strickland — chief development officer for InterAct, a domestic violence center serving Wake County — explained why social isolation could soon lead to serious domestic problems.
In the past, Strickland said, victims of domestic violence could leave their homes and call a shelter for help on the pretense that they were going to the store, or picking up their kids from school, or visiting a friend.
“If you are isolating at home with someone, there’s just no opportunity to get away and call and ask for support,” Strickland said. “So we do think that’s really inhibiting people’s ability to be able to seek help.”
Add in those other factors — unemployment, food scarcity, alcohol and guns — and the lit fuse will inevitably reach the bomb, advocates say.
“I don’t think people realize the huge hostage situation we have here. It’s almost like the perfect storm,” said Alice Lutz, director of Triangle Family Services in Raleigh.
Calls for help
Strickland said InterAct is receiving roughly 20 calls for assistance a day, which she said is about double what it had been a couple of weeks earlier but still less than what it was before the pandemic.
There is one big difference in the calls now, though, Strickland said. The cries for help are much more severe. Strickland said about half of the calls are from people seeking shelter.
“The vast majority of calls are referencing COVID-19, and we’re hearing some pretty scary things from victims,” Strickland said.
Directors of domestic violence shelters in Cumberland, Robeson and Durham counties said their call volumes are also flat or have even decreased slightly.
“I do expect an increase of people requesting shelter services due to the stay-at-home (order) because a lot of the abusers will be staying at home and not be getting out,” said Emily Locklear, director of the Southeastern Family Violence Center in Lumberton.
Abuse cases will grow
The N.C. Coalition against Domestic Violence provides resources, guidance and information to dozens of shelters and other domestic violence advocacy groups throughout the state.
As the coalition’s director, Fisher holds weekly conference calls with those groups to assess their needs and to check the pulse on what is happening in different areas.
Fisher said her organization also keeps in close contact with national organizations, such as the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which provided her with insight into what to expect in the weeks ahead.
“In those places where there’s been a dip in calls or a decrease, the staff should really prepare themselves for the spike that comes after that,” Fisher said. “If it’s not going up now, it will. That’s been their experience with similar situations.”
Mecklenburg reports more abuse
It appears that Mecklenburg County, which had more than 495 coronavirus cases by Thursday afternoon, is already experiencing an increase in domestic violence. Mecklenburg leads the state in coronavirus cases, more than double the number in Wake County, which has the second-highest number.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department reported 389 more domestic violence cases from March 1-25 than it had during the same period a year earlier. The department called the 15.9 percent increase “concerning” but did not directly attribute it to the virus and the calls to stay at home.
Police didn’t rule it out, either.
Efforts to contact Safe Alliance, a domestic violence shelter in Charlotte, were unsuccessful. The shelter’s director told Charlotte television station WCNC that the call volume for the shelter’s emergency support line had grown about 40 percent and that 23 families had to be moved into a hotel because of social distancing requirements for the shelter. The shelter can now hold about 75 people, down from 120.
At the Compass Center in Chapel Hill, Executive Director Cordelia Heaney provided figures showing a nearly 16 percent increase in domestic violence victims served at the center from February through March of this year, compared with the same period in 2019. The center also saw a 116 percent increase in victims seeking shelter.
Orange County does not have a shelter for domestic violence victims. Compass connects victims to shelters in surrounding counties or puts them up in motels, Heaney said.
Kent Wallace-Meggs, executive director of the Durham Crisis Response Center, said his 17-bed shelter is operating at a lower capacity because of social distancing.
“Should someone contact us we’ll make sure that we can find them appropriate accommodations,” he said.
Most shelters at capacity
In Wake County, Strickland said the 45-bed InterAct shelter is at capacity and typically stays that way even in less trying times. Other shelters are full, too.
“We are calling shelters across the state and that’s the message we’re hearing loud and clear,” Strickland said.
Strickland and other shelter officials stressed that victims will still get help, including shelter, regardless.
Advocates say part of the reason shelter call volumes have not yet surged in some areas is that victims of domestic violence may be confused about where to turn. They may not know that the shelters and courthouses across the state are operating, though some employees are working remotely from home and some courthouses have reduced operating hours and restricted access.
“I think there’s still a perception that perhaps we (InterAct) are closed,” Strickland said. “And we want to make sure that victims know they are not alone, and that there are services available and that we can respond 24/seven.”
Lorrin Freeman, the district attorney for Wake County, roughly estimated that the court system has seen a 20 percent increase in domestic violence cases during the pandemic. Freeman said the courts continue to hold domestic violence and civil protective order hearings and the Clerk of Court’s office continues to process protective violence orders.
The courts are prosecuting people accused of domestic violence who remain in custody, Freeman said, but not those who have been released while awaiting trial, which she said will cause a future backup.
Freeman said Wake County courts rely heavily on an innovative and effective program that gives some first-offenders of domestic violence a second chance. The program has had to be shut down during the pandemic, she said.
Triangle Family Services provided the 26-week program and case management for about 380 people convicted of domestic abuse. Lutz, the organization’s director, said she it recently receive authorization from the N.C. Council for Women and Youth Involvement to conduct the program through video conferences.
In the meantime, Lutz said, she is trying to add capacity, and possibly staff, to handle a growing backlog of old cases and the onslaught of new ones that she believes is inevitable.
This story has been updated to correct the call volume that InterAct has received.