By Melba Newsome
Since the coronavirus pandemic began and stay-at-home orders went into effect, reports of domestic violence calls have increased appreciably. Charlotte-Mecklenburg reported an 18 percent increase in the number of calls in March 2020 compared to March 2019. The sheriff of Cherokee County, South Carolina reported a 35 percent increase in cases in March compared to February.
Conversely, calls to shelters seeking emergency support remained relatively flat as the coronavirus continued to spread. Domestic violence professionals believe the latter is, in large part, because abuse survivors may be confused or unaware of the options and resources still available during the pandemic.
While they continued to operate during what the United Nations called a “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence, emergency services, shelter systems and social services have been frequently overwhelmed and sorely underfunded, forcing many to turn away clients because they were at capacity.
In late February, Rebekah Wathey was fortunate to find space at a shelter in the Charlotte bedroom community of Rock Hill, SC. At first, Safe Passage seemed like a godsend. Housed in a comfortable six-bedroom home in a nice neighborhood, the shelter hosted up to six families at a time who lived communally, sharing chores, a kitchen area, a playroom and a movie room. But when much of the country began implementing social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Wathey felt she was forced to choose between being homeless and homebound.
Finding a port in the storm
Wathey left her home after her partner physically abused the couple’s 3-year-old daughter and Wathey’s 7-year-old son from a prior relationship.
“This was my first time in a domestic violence situation. He had a domestic violence charge from a previous relationship and was verbally abusive,” she says. “He pushed and grabbed me and busted the door down but he never punched me in the face or anything. So, I didn’t think he was physically abusive because I was never educated about [domestic violence].”
Wathey and her two children arrived at Safe Passage on March 2 and were activated as residents a day later. She was given an exit date of May 3 with a possible extension, if necessary. In the meantime, she would work with the staff to design a safety and exit plan to help her get back on her feet.
When South Carolina’s Gov. Henry McMasters declared a state of emergency on March 15, Safe Passage suspended all in-and-out privileges for residents.
“The coordinator said ‘if you want to leave, now is the time. No one is forcing you to stay but if you leave you can’t come back.’” says Wathey.
Safe Passage declined to detail the new guidelines or respond to specific inquiries but director Tiffany Byrd acknowledged the rules changed after Wathey and her children moved in.
“Additional safety guidelines were put into place due to the COVID-19 situation and the stay-at-home order that shortly followed,” Byrd wrote in an email.
Wathey and her ex-husband shared custody of their 7-year-old son. The executive order and rule change happened while her son was with his father. He was not allowed to return to the shelter and staff made clear that if she left to see him, she couldn’t come back.
“I wanted to leave but I didn’t have anywhere to go so I just stayed and cried a lot.”
She describes the daily phone calls or FaceTime with her son as upsetting and heartbreaking.
“He desperately wanted to come and kept asking when he would see me and his sister. I’d always tell him ‘just a couple more weeks,’” recalls Wathey. “My daughter is really close with her brother and she’d say ‘I want to see brother’ and ‘I want to see Pop Pop’ and all the people in her family. You can’t explain to a 3-year-old that if we leave we don’t have a place to stay.”
According to Karen Parker, President and CEO of the Safe Alliance domestic violence shelter, no law governs clients’ movement in and out of domestic violence shelters. Individual organizations are free to impose whatever restrictions they see fit, even during the pandemic.
“Most shelters try to operate with as few rules or mandates as possible because we know this is [the] best practice for supporting people who have experienced severe power and control-related victimization,” said Parker in an email. “At Safe Alliance we educate people frequently about the stay-at-home orders/social distancing and encourage that these are followed but we do not ‘police’ anyone.”
Policing is how Wathey describes the measures Safe Passage took in the wake of the governor’s executive order, some of which did not seem particularly well thought out. For example, after living together under the same roof for nearly two weeks, residents were no longer allowed to interact. A violation earned a verbal or written reprimand that could result in expulsion.
“You had to be in your room or stay six feet apart from another family. It’s hard to keep a kid away from other kids. You can’t lock them in a room all day and expect them to not go crazy.”
It’s difficult to know how widespread such movement restrictions are in domestic violence shelters. Several organizations, including the NC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, did not respond to repeated inquiries. InterAct Family Safety and Empowerment Center in Raleigh did not make anyone available to discuss its guidelines. However, homeless shelters have also enacted a ban on in-and-out privileges to curb the spread among transient populations.
Stay or go?
As Parker stated, enforcing controlling measures on women fleeing abusive situations appears counterproductive, pushing some survivors to leave shelters and return to their abusers. Wathey believes that happened to one woman at Safe Harbor. “I think, for a while, people would rather be in their old situations because living there was almost like jail, with a few more liberties.”
Ultimately, choosing to stay or go was not a decision Wathey had to make. In late April, she was kicked out of Safe Passage after her father was seen on video tossing snacks over the fence to her. “They said I’d disclosed the location of the shelter but they knew my Dad already knew the location from when I first moved in,” says Wathey. “Where’s the humanity in kicking out an abused woman with nowhere to go in the middle of a pandemic?”
*This story was supported by the journalism non-profit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.