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Domestic violence data hazy at moment

Experts fear cases up during shutdown

May 5, 2020 Digital Media Exclusive

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When COVID-19 emerged in Pennsylvania in March, Gov. Tom Wolf issued stay-at-home orders across the state's 67 counties.

Those orders are, at the moment, effective through Friday. They were instituted to keep Pennsylvanians safe from coronavirus.

But home isn't the safest place for everyone. Some officials are concerned the pandemic is skewing domestic violence numbers — and maybe causing more.

“We expect that this is increasing (cases),” said Julie Bancroft, chief public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “The nature of social distancing … will likely cause instances to be on the rise.”

There is help

The first thing the coalition and the Butler County Victim Outreach Intervention Center (VOICe) want people to know is help is still available. Social distancing regulations may affect how intervention agencies can be accessed. But they remain accessible.

“We had to really quickly pivot how we supply services,” said Linda Strachan, executive director of VOICe. “We remain open to all domestic violence victims.”

VOICe has locations in Butler and Cranberry Township. Some work is still being conducted in-person, like court appearances for Protection from Abuse orders. Other services are being offered over the phone or online.

Strachan said when the state first began implementing pandemic procedures, VOICe saw a decline in the number of people seeking services. The demand for emergency shelter in particular is down, according to Strachan.

“I think people were afraid of the virus,” Strachan said. “I get it. I totally understand it.”

“You're more comfortable with what you're familiar with,” an anonymous survivor who has used VOICe services told the Eagle.

VOICe, like other agencies, is being creative when it comes to offering clients the same services in new ways. The survivor said not knowing if services are being offered can affect reaching out in the first place.

“You're kind of afraid to put that little cry out when you're not sure,” the survivor said.

Strachan said VOICe won't waver on the support it provides.

“Of utmost importance will be confidentiality,” Strachan said. “Always.”

Crossing borders

Strachan is part of a group of domestic violence intervention leaders in Western Pennsylvania that's been meeting regularly via Zoom to see how services can be better reached by victims.

The problem is that there isn't one solution, according to Bancroft. Every county has different resources available. Every county has different areas of need.

“We're really seeing a mix,” Bancroft said.

Concrete numbers aren't yet available and likely won't be until after the pandemic runs its course. But Bancroft said the state has been able to recognize the number of domestic violence calls to law enforcement are up, although hot line usage is not.

State Trooper Jim Long, a public information and community services officer for Troop D, said the numbers locally share a different story.

“Our domestic assault (calls) are actually down,” Long said.

Long said from Jan. 1 through April 20, 2019, state police conducted 352 security checks, patrolling local establishments and responding to a wide range of calls. In the same amount of time in 2020, police conducted 987.

Long said the increase in the number of checks so far this year is because police are also making sure businesses, schools and other locations that are closed because of the pandemic are secure.

“We're going to domestic places that we deem to be sensitive in nature,” Long said.

By this time in 2019, Long said state police responded to 50 domestic violence calls in Butler County, including 23 disturbances and 14 cases of harassment. In 2020, state police have responded to 40, one of which was an attempted homicide.

Long said the decrease in domestic violence calls has been consistent across all five of the counties Troop D covers.

“There's probably not less assaults going on,” Long said. “It's just not being reported.”

Long said state police are still responding in person to domestic calls.

A phone call away

Long said most of the domestic incidents Troop D responds to come from 911 or calls made directly to the barracks. Of these, many reports are made by outside sources, like school districts.

“You have a lot of third-party calls, in my experience,” Long said.

With stay-at-home orders temporarily closing many “third parties,” reporting has decreased.

This is not to say domestic violence hot lines aren't being used. Bancroft said associated “textlines” have been especially implemented since Wolf asked people to stay home.

While few counties have textlines in place, the coalition does recognize the discreetness reporting abuse through agency websites or text provides.

“We're largely pushing the textline and the website (reporting) for that reason,” Bancroft said.

The survivor said many victims might struggle to find a way to get help, particularly now that so many people are staying inside.

“You don't want to leave any trails,” the survivor said.

“It takes an average of seven times to leave before someone leaves their abuser,” Strachan said. “It's absolutely not a one size fits all.”

Spent resources

With its economic ramifications, the pandemic might give rise to different types of abuse.

Financial abuse also happens in 99 percent of domestic violence cases, according to Bancroft. Extenuating economic circumstances could exacerbate some domestic cases.

Strachan said some victims might struggle with leaving an abusive relationship because of financial dependency. Government stimulus checks issued to Pennsylvania households might not be easily divided if a PFA order is in place.

There are too many questions, according to Strachan.

“Those are the complicating things that we don't have answers to,” Strachan said.

Post-pandemic

Strachan said the demand for VOICe is slowly returning to where it was before the pandemic. Although many clients appear to not want to “rock the boat,” Strachan expects requests for services will spike once the state reopens.

Bancroft also said there might be an influx in reporting post-pandemic. She said data regarding service usage and availability is calculated at the end of each quarter. Official numbers should start to emerge in the next month.

From the law enforcement perspective, Long said the concern is that traditional reporting outlets — like school nurses — aren't able to watch for abuse during the pandemic. Without official data, Long said talking about domestic violence rates is hypothetical.

“We're only guessing,” Long said. “Only time will tell.”

The problem might be whether there's extra government funding to handle that spike.

“I think we have big worries about those things happening down the road,” Strachan said.

VOICe and other groups rely on in-kind donations, according to Strachan. She said community support is paramount to providing proper services.

“When we don't have that … it's really difficult,” Strachan said.

Strachan said fortunately, VOICe had a stockpile of items like clothing going into the pandemic. With limited opportunities to obtain new donations now, VOICe partly relies on connections to the coalition and other entities.

Guessing game

Bancroft emphasized there is always someone available to help victims escape abusers.

“They may feel alone,” Bancroft said. “But there is absolutely help available.”

Though COVID-19 has disrupted the lives of many, it might provide a chance for the state to re-evaluate services available for victims of domestic violence.

“We absolutely want to acknowledge that these are stressful times for everyone,” Bancroft said. “I think this will prompt things like more programs.”

The survivor said VOICe was instrumental when it came to escaping an abuser. Above all things, the survivor most values VOICe's openness. There was no harsh judgment, according to the survivor.

“The help is still there,” the survivor said. “There are still people that care about what is happening to you.”

VOICe's 24-hour hot line can be reached at 1-800-400-8551. The outreach office number is 724-776-5910.

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Samantha Beal

Samantha Beal