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Safe house: Self-isolation can spell increased danger for DV victims

Stay safe, stay home. For domestic violence victims, those imperatives are oil and water.

Sgt. Jordan Ferguson said domestic violence is a huge concern. He hasn’t seen an increase in calls, but doesn’t think that’s an accurate representation of the problem.

“We don’t see most of the domestic violence,” Ferguson said. “They do not call us, and most domestic violence is unreported.”

Because of this, he said that it’s important that if you see something, you say something. If you suspect that a friend or family member is in an abusive situation, reach out, even if you can’t do so physically.

Spokane County has the highest rate of domestic violence in the state, with 3,900 confirmed victims, but with unreported victims, the count may be as high as 13,500, according to Spokane Regional Health District.

The cycle of domestic abuse typically starts with emotional abuse and control, followed by violence, and then a “honeymoon” period where the abuser apologizes and promises never to do it again … “until they start doing it again,” Ferguson said. Isolating a victim – both socially and physically – is part and parcel of this cycle. And Ferguson said it would make sense if this timeline was compressed because of the confinement of space.

“If they’re not separated or they don’t have the ability to be apart, we’d absolutely expect tension to grow,” Ferguson said.

The YWCA hasn’t had an increase in victims, but Morgan Colburn, YWCA counseling advocacy and outreach director, said that wasn’t necessarily indicative of the need.

“I think we saw survivors just focusing on, ‘How do I get my kids needs met right now?’ ” Colburn said. “And then putting their own needs aside for a little bit.”

YWCA has already made some logistical changes because of the coronavirus.

“Sometimes singles will have to bunk up, but right now, we’re not bunking up anybody, so that we can practice our own means of social isolation even within the safe house,” Colburn said.

If someone at the safe house were to test positive for the coronavirus, the YWCA does have other options, such as other safe locations and partnerships with hotels, but even those options wane as hotels shutter their doors.

“Nothing is really a guarantee at this point,” Colburn said. “But our shelters are open right now and in those crisis situations, our service is a great service.”

YWCA’s legal advocacy can still provide victims with assistance with orders of protection, though over the telephone instead of in person. The courthouse has not suspended this legal action.

In cases of domestic violence, children in the home can be frequently caught in the crossfires or be the direct receiver of abuse.

In response to COVID-19, Vanessa Behan has made two major changes to prepare for increased demand. They have raised the capacity limit from 24 kids to 40 and changed the upper age limit to 12 years old. The shelter is able to accommodate children for a 72-hour period. The shelter had always planned on expanding the age range, but in a more gradual fashion.

“And then Friday happened,” said Amy Knapton Vega, Vanessa Behan executive director, referring to March 13, when it was announced that school would be suspended until April 24. “We had to adapt and adjust and realize the fact that we are extremely concerned that parents are put in situations right now where they have to make some really difficult decisions about who they’re going to allow care for their children, as well as being home with your children not having your normal social support system.”

The shelter had not budgeted for this many children, and Knapton Vega estimated the cost going forward to be $11,000 a week.

Getting children out of dangerous environments will always be the number one priority of the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, Knapton Vega said. With that said, they are doing the most they can to minimize the spread of the coronavirus to children and staff.

“It’s really like triaging every phone call we get, ‘What is the concern for safety?’ ” Knapton Vega said. “There’s this whole list of things that we’re assessing, because we also know that trying to take in more children increases our risk as well. And so how do we do that in a thoughtful way, in a safe way, so that we’re not perpetuating the problem, but helping.”

Trying to keep children apart is a hurdle.

“It’s more challenging when we’re talking about children being around other children because children are harder to keep at distance, but we’re seeing some creative strategies for separation,” said Ashley Beck, Spokane Regional Health District community health associate director.

For some children, school is the only place they feel safe, Knapton Vega said.

“It could be something like we call CPS (Child Protective Services) about a situation with the family last week, and then this week now they’re at home with those same people in that same environment,” Annie Murphey, Spokane Domestic Violence Coalition chair, said, referring to the week before schools closed.

For many families, the coronavirus is going to compound already present stressors, such as financial hardship and food insecurity.

“We just see those risk factors building and building upon one another, and it sets people up for a really unsafe situation,” Murphey said. “Things that someone might normally be able to cope with, like illness in the family or a loss of a job – those things are stressful enough, but we have all of these factors coming at people all at once.”

Another risk factor is parents desperate to find childcare with the schools closing. In fact, Vanessa Behan sent out guidelines to help parents screen potential babysitters. Though there are many people in the community stepping up to help parents in need of childcare, parents and guardians need to be cautious, Knapton Vega said.

Vanessa Behan’s advisory suggests parents question how well they know the person, as well as what experience that person has with children, especially pertaining to the child’s age. Another factor is how many other children the person will be caring for, what the babysitter’s support system is, as well as the safety of the environment (does the house have firearms, for example, and are they safely stored?). Whether the babysitter has CPR certification is another factor.