As self-isolation and quarantine measures go into effect across the state to halt the spread of the coronavirus, domestic violence advocates fear for abuse victims who are trapped in homes with their abusers during a stressful time that may exacerbate the violence.
“Your home is supposed to be your safest place, and at times like this it’s not,” said Twahna Harris, a domestic violence advocate. “It’s an advantage for your abuser right now, because it’s all about power and control.”
Much like the spike in reported incidents of domestic violence following the 2016 flood in Baton Rouge, victims who are already dealing with abuse in their daily lives may be at even greater risk as the coronavirus forces people indoors and out of sight.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said several factors can influence households where abusive relationships play out — even in good times. He pointed to anxiety over how to navigate finances when people are unable to work, the panic of where to find enough food to last the duration of a quarantine and the uncertainty that comes with making rent at the end of a chaotic month.
“I think this pandemic has the potential to be even more dangerous in terms of domestic violence than the flood did, because of how widespread it is compared to the flood,” Moore said.
Moore said he saw a spike not only in domestic violence incidents around that time, but also in slayings in which domestic abuse was the motive, along with murder-suicides. Fourteen people were killed in domestic violence incidents in 2017, the year after the flood when, Moore said, tensions were high.
The year before, when Moore's office first began to track domestic violence homicides, the tally came to seven. In 2018, the number was the same.
With courts mostly closed, temporary restraining orders are harder to access, he said. Even as the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff announced this week that the jail will stop booking people for misdemeanor violations, he made an exception for domestic abuse counts and other violent crimes.
But cases of domestic violence are not always reported, and it tends to take a long time for victims to leave their abusers. For those abuse victims who do leave, shelters like Iris Domestic Violence Center remain open to the public, said John Price, executive director of the center.
The center, located at a confidential address to protect victims, remains open 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, Price said. Shelter employees are continuing to take steps like maintain social distancing, regular cleaning and staying alert for anyone with symptoms.
The center also provides legal services, children’s services and maintains a 24-hour hotline. At this point, the only service they have suspended is taking donations of clothes and furniture, Price said, to minimize outside contact.
“Nothing has changed as far as the public would be concerned,” Price said. “We just maybe are doing it with a little more caution from the inside.”
The Butterfly Society, a domestic violence nonprofit Harris runs, also provides services for victims and has not shut down in light of the coronavirus spread.
Harris has been fielding phone calls from clients she says feel trapped right now because of the measures in place. She recommends to victims they find a place within the home where they feel safe — or if not safe, where they can just be alone with their thoughts to process without surveillance, such as a closet or a bathroom.
“Just breathe for a second,” Harris said. “It’s an outlet.”
Take a walk around the parking lot or block if possible. Read a good book to escape some of the anxiety for a while. Victims can also call the number for The Butterfly Society to seek relief from someone at the other end of the phone, or they can reach out online.
Harris said it is important for these victims to know someone is there for them.
“It’s just, you say to them, I’m praying for you,” she said. “You’re in survival mode right now. It’s just hard. It’s a very hard time right now.”
Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response, another local advocacy group, has suspended their in-person services but are still able to talk to clients remotely. Their 24-hour crisis hotline also remains open.