In-Depth

Domestic Violence Spikes In The Wake Of COVID-19, Advocates Say

Advocates say families are facing increased danger as victims may be forced to stay home with their abusers for weeks on end. 

From her home in the Webster area, Theresa Graham works the hotline for Bay Area Turning Point, a Houston-area shelter for families facing domestic violence.

Texas nonprofits are reporting an uptick in domestic violence amid COVID-19.

As stay-at-home orders are extended and unemployment has skyrocketed, victims may be forced to stay home with their abusers for weeks on end.

The life-threatening situation has advocates concerned about the months to come.

‘A perfect storm’

The increase in domestic violence has been captured by various organizations and nonprofits across the state.

Maisha Colter, CEO of Houston-based nonprofit Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, said that the group averaged around 950 calls a day in February. On March 16, as one example, the group fielded more than 1,000.

“We are in a sanctioned isolation situation,” Colter said. “For most victims, they're being told to stay home. That means staying home with their children and their abuser. Perpetrators tend to use isolation to assert power and control over their victims.”

Montgomery County reported a 35% increase in domestic violence in March 2020, compared to the same month in 2019.

“Agencies across the state are reporting to us that there's an increase in hotline calls just in the last two weeks,” said Gloria Terry, CEO of the Texas Council on Family Violence, a coalition of providers statewide working with victims of domestic violence.

“People have lost their jobs, are worried about their financial position, children are out of school and parents are having to navigate not being able to appropriately homeschool their children, you have the stressers of health concerns,” said Terry. “So when you put all of those stressers on top of an unhealthy relationship, that’s a perfect storm.”

And Terry suspects things will only get worse over time.

Her organization is looking to Harvey as a model for what to expect during COVID-19, only on a much larger scale.

“There was an increase in frequency and severity of domestic violence,” Terry said. “If you think about it, (Hurricane Harvey) was a much smaller footprint, even though it was an enormous footprint.”

Wendy Arias, a client advocate with Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse (AVDA) calls back clients from her dining room table in Northeast Houston.

Lessons from Harvey

Faith Graves said it’s painful to think back on the abuse she suffered during Harvey, when she said her ex-husband beat her, causing serious injury. They were isolated because of flooding.

(Grave’s name has been altered upon her request, to avoid retribution from her ex-husband.)

“We were stuck. I couldn’t go to work,” Graves said, “I didn't feel safe.”

Graves said she was living with her husband and her two kids in the Katy area at the time. Their neighborhood flooded, so they were stuck at their house.

One night, she and her then-husband got into an argument.

“I snatched a laptop from him, he basically snatched it away from me and kicked me on my back,” Graves said. “We got into a huge fight and the kids were around.”

Graves said she went to the hospital to see what was wrong.

“They did x-rays and everything,” she said. “It turned out that I had something wrong with my back when he kicked me.”

Graves is now divorced, lives with her son and said she's much happier.

But it took years to get out of that relationship.

She’s one of thousands of people who dealt with domestic violence in the wake of Harvey. As of July 2018, post-Harvey strangulation filings in Harris County had already surpassed the 2017 yearly total, according to analysis by the Texas Council on Family Violence.

Finding shelter

As reports of domestic violence increase, demand on area shelters remains high.

“Nothing prepared us for this,” said Leigh Ann Fry, CEO at Bay Area Turning Point, a Houston-area shelter for victims of domestic violence.

Fry is trying to keep shelter doors open while avoiding a potential outbreak at the facility.

“Our shelter is 100% up and running, shelter staff are still rotating in and out,” said Fry, who has asked shelter clients to adhere to the stay-at-home order and stay socially distant within the shelter.

“We have space for 72 individuals and we remain full, so we’ve had to do things like a rotating meal schedule,” said Fry. House meetings are also cancelled, and people who aren’t working are asked to stay inside the shelter.

She said as families find alternative living situations and move out of the shelter, she’s not filling up those spots again to comply with social distancing standards, which means there may be fewer beds for families in need as the crisis escalates.

And bed capacity is already low to begin with: Gloria Terry said that in the state of Texas, 42% of requests for emergency shelter go unmet because of capacity issues. And in the Houston area, that percentage goes up to 78%, she added.

Terry said that means even if women and men call in to say they're ready to leave their abuser, they still might be denied emergency shelter.

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Elizabeth Trovall

Elizabeth Trovall

Immigration Reporter

Elizabeth Trovall is an immigration reporter for Houston Public Media. She joined the News 88.7 team after several years abroad in Santiago, Chile, where she reported on business, energy, politics and culture. Trovall's work has been featured on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, Latino...

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