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Staying home when home is not a safe place

For those suffering from domestic violence, there is help (and hope) – even during a pandemic

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Oftentimes when Women’s Resource Center (WRC) executive director Jessica Walsh answers the hotline phone, the conversation begins something like this:

“I’m not really sure if this counts as abuse…”

 A push down the stairs; a slap to the face – these are actions that many of us already recognize to be domestic violence. Yet there are other ways that abusers can hurt their victims, sometimes so insidiously that it makes them question their own sanity. Controlling, isolating, supposedly for the victim’s own safety; insulting, accusing, because they can never seem to do anything right.

“Don’t work there.”

“Stop seeing that person.”

“If you really loved me, you’d just hang out with me here at home.”

“You can be so stupid.”

“You’re hideous.”

“It’s your fault I’m acting this way.”

Financial, emotional, verbal abuse; physical violence and sexual assault – all of it, Ms. Walsh said, counts. “If we could just underline that domestic violence takes many forms,” she said.

And the number of Rhode Islanders who are experiencing it has only increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence seeing calls to the helplines rising nearly 30 percent in March compared to last year. But what Ms. Walsh wants those suffering to know is that even though the world right now may be filled with uncertainty, victims can still count on the WRC to help them in whatever way they need. “We are here to talk things through.”

Twice the survivor, forever the advocate

Growing up, Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships (SOAR) advocate Patricia didn’t have a father around. Raised by a single mother, she never knew what a healthy relationship was supposed to look like – what was expected, what was “normal.” What Patricia did know – or at least thought she knew – was that after escaping her first abusive relationship, she would not find herself in that same position again.

Until she did.

At first, he was a “sweetheart,” a “gentleman,” Patricia said of her now ex-husband when they starting dating in 1989. In time, however, that façade faded away, and other sides to him began to rear their ugly head.

“It’s just a feeling that you get, that you just can’t put your finger on what it is until it happens,” Patricia said.

He would hit her, scream at her, steal her money; try to control her, harass her, pit the children against her. In the 15 years they were together, he destroyed her credit, racking up nearly $10,000 in debt on just one card alone; when she was pregnant, he stole the money she’d saved for a cab ride to the hospital for when she was finally ready to give birth. Patricia hated that her children were growing up in such an unstable environment – but she worried that the alternative would turn out to be far, far worse.

“My biggest fear always was that he would kill my kids and leave me alive,” she said.

Like Patricia, many victims often face numerous obstacles that can make leaving feel impossible. There’s a very real concern for safety, whether it’s for them, their children or – on threats of suicide – the abuser themselves; an inability to access basic necessities like food and housing after having their finances abused, as is the case in 99 percent of all domestic violence cases. They may feel shame for falling victim, take the blame for what is going on.

“The emotions that come along with it are so complicated and really hard to untangle,” Ms. Walsh said.

When she and husband finally did separate, Patricia acknowledged things “got worse before it got better;” even now, almost 20 years later, she is still reeling from the financial devastation his abuse and manipulation wrought. That is why the prevention work she does with SOAR is so important, Patricia said, in order to educate others about domestic violence before it happens – because it can happen to anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status.

“You can’t just talk about it,” Patricia said. “You have to be part of the difference, too.”

COVID-19 complications

 Prevention has hardly been at the forefront of anyone’s minds since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, Ms. Walsh said, as the WRC grapples with the repercussions stay-at-home and social distant orders brought for their clients. 

“Everything that they might have been experiencing before the pandemic is magnified now,” Ms. Walsh said.

All at once, the WRC saw an increased need for services from clients both old and new – anything from victims currently in the throes of it, calling to say their abusers were using the virus just as another means of control (like using it as excuse to not abide by custody agreements), to longtime survivors suddenly feeling triggered by the trauma of forced isolation.  

“Right now, we have lots of folks who need lots of services all at the same time,” Ms. Walsh said.

Though the WRC – after closing their Warren office to walk-ins back in March – is continuing to provide their care remotely, even adding on an additional support group to better aid their clients, Ms. Walsh knows that the virus is causing significant challenges for those wishing to get help. While shelters remain open and are following every safety protocol guided by the Center for Disease and Prevention, the threat of contracting the virus still remains present for the foreseeable future.

“Home might not be a safe place to be; now the community is not a safe place to be either,” Ms. Walsh said.

Even reaching out to the WRC itself could be difficult for victims when trapped inside their households, their movements now more easily monitored by their abusers on a constant basis. Though the state’s stay-at-home order was lifted recently, the ability to get support from their usual channels – like at work or school – remain largely limited. With isolation from friends and family already playing such a major role in domestic violence, COVID-19, just by nature, could make it far easier for victims to suffer in silence.

“A lot of the warning sings we talk about are based on face-to-face interaction,” Ms. Walsh said.

But that does not mean they have to. There are still options for getting help, Ms. Walsh said, though people may need to get a little more creative in accessing it. They can email the WRC at info@wrcnbc.org, use the chat feature on their website; call the Newport hotline at 401-846-5263 or the 24/7 statewide number at 1-800-494-8100. If it isn’t safe for them to reach out themselves, Ms. Walsh suggested victims could also text a trusted friend or family member to have them make the initial contact. While the Newport County Courthouse remains closed, the Kent and Providence ones are open for those in need of acquiring an emergency restraining order.

“We don’t want COVID-19 to be just another barrier that folks are facing to reach out to us for help,” Ms. Walsh said.

Lasting impacts

While the resources for getting help are there, Ms. Walsh said there are concerns about the lasting impacts the virus ultimately will have. It’s unknown how much of an increased need the WRC will see and how long that will last; there are only so many people they can help “with a staff of our size.” COVID-19 has also interrupted their main fundraising source, the Butterfly Ball – an event that usually brings in around $100,000 for the organization.

But for now, Ms. Walsh said the WRC is and remains committed to being there for their clients – to listen, to empower, to answer any questions – and to let victims know that together, healing can be possible.

“We will continue to be here for the survivors that we support.”

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