Coronavirus making it harder for domestic violence victims to stay safe

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Knox County is one of several local governments issuing “safer at home” orders to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

Although social distancing and staying at home are ways to keep those most vulnerable to COVID-19 safer, it could be doing the opposite for those who are vulnerable in a different sense: Domestic violence victims.

Van Wolfe, executive director of the domestic violence shelter Safe Space of East Tennessee, said she has already seen a drop in their crisis hotline phone calls, and the shelter isn’t nearly as full as usual.

She believes the main reason less victims are reaching out for help is because everyone is being asked to stay at home as much as possible.

“They’re literally stuck in the house with an abusive partner, sometimes 24 hours a day. So they don’t have the opportunities to get out and make phone calls. They can’t just, go to the, you know, clerks office to get an order of protection because they don’t have a quote ‘excuse’ to leave the house right now,” Wolfe said.

She said there are several aspects of COVID-19 that have affected victims.

Courts remain open, but the hours are limited and some require a call before showing up and filing for an order of protection.

The loss of jobs could impact the behavior of the abusers.

“Research has shown that domestic violence always increases during natural disasters like hurricanes, or what have you. You know, because I think, well obviously, the abuser has more access to the victim,” Wolfe explained.

She said that the abuser losing their job could also make them want to drink more, which can turn and already aggressive person more aggressive.

Wolfe said that loss of jobs also cuts off any monetary access the victim might have.

“The economic impact of this virus is going to decrease the victim’s ability to leave an abusive situation. If she’s got laid off, you know, if she doesn’t have income that maybe she had last week, then in her mind, ‘I can’t leave. I can’t even afford to leave,'” Wolfe said.

Courts may be open and allowing order of protections to be filed, but most other hearings are delayed, bonds have been reduced and law enforcement officers are issuing citations more than warrants for arrest.

Wolfe said none of those affect domestic violent offenders, but the perception can make victims feel like nothing would be done legally.

Another aspect victims might think about, Wolfe said, was choosing between health or safety if they wanted to leave the abusive home.

“I think sometimes they just think that they can just ride out the abuse, as opposed to dangers, or what they perceive as dangers, you know, coming into a shelter,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe said Safe Space has been implementing any safety precautions they can to protect against COVID-19 exposure.

She said that if a victim can call the shelter and simply talk to Wolfe or her staff, she would know what to say to help ease their worries of getting out amid a pandemic.

“I would tell them not to fear coming into a shelter. Our shelter is very clean. It’s sanitized daily. I would tell them to consider their safety right now, and the safety of their children,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe said though, that much similar to many others shopping for essentials, shelter staff haven’t been able to find enough cleaning products or toilet paper.

She said that if anyone had extra cleaning supplies or toilet paper, Safe Space would gladly except donations.

If you are a victim of domestic violence or you know someone who is a victim, call the Safe Space crisis hotline at 1-800-244-5968, or visit the website by clicking here.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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