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Lockdown making it harder for domestic violence victims to get help

Local and state stay-at-home orders are causing victims and survivors of domestic violence to lose access to places of refuge, in-person support and long-term restraining orders, even as calls for help increase, according to advocates.

“This is a growing concern nationwide about how to keep victims and survivors safe when they’re forced to shelter in place with their abuser,” said Kathy Black, executive director of La Casa de las Madres, a downtown nonprofit that supports and houses victims and survivors of domestic violence.

Meanwhile, as victims are pressured to stay home, household violence is expected to worsen due to the stresses of economic hardship, said Kiersten Stewart, the director of public policy for the San Francisco-based advocacy group Futures Without Violence.

“Now the perpetrator can say, ‘You can’t leave. You have to stay in because there’s a shelter-in-place order,’” Black said. “Or, ‘If you go out I’m not going to let you back in, and you’re just going to have to be on the streets.’”

The Asian Women’s Shelter has experienced an estimated one-third increase in the number of calls since Mayor London Breed’s stay-in-place order, according to Orchid Pusey, the shelter’s executive director. Jill Zawisza, the executive director of the support group WOMAN., Inc., has seen a slight rise in calls to her organization’s 24-hour support line. On Thursday, she estimated it’s a little less than 5% but appears to be increasing.

Abusers who control victims utilize whatever tools they have access to, and the threat that it’s more dangerous outside than in the home is more convincing to victims now than ever, Pusey said.

Victims and survivors of domestic violence can still utilize assistance remotely, through support lines, the National Domestic Violence Hotline and other resources and services. However, advocates noted that they often have limited access to phones or the internet in their homes.

The curtailing of public services has also made it harder for victims and survivors to access resources and services they need to keep them and their children safe, like court proceedings, Zawisza and Stewart said.

“All of the things that so many wage workers in particular need, victims of domestic violence need but need them more and sooner,” Stewart said.

Making things worse, victims and survivors have also lost in-person support groups citywide due to the required social distancing, Black said.

Black said that for the safety of victims, survivors and its employees, La Casa de las Madres closed its community office, where people previously received counseling, group support and emergency supplies like food, soap and other hygiene products.

The nonprofit shifted its resources online and continues to operate two SROs that offer 157 units for victims and survivors of domestic violence, emergency shelter, text service and two 24-hour support lines, Black said.

The closure of schools has taken a toll on women at La Casa de las Madres’ emergency shelter, however, who require the childcare to leave the shelter, said Daisy Bravo, the shelter’s program manager.

Residents’ food supplies at the SROs are also running low, a struggle made worse by emptied shelves in stores that typically offer produce and canned goods, Black said.

Zawisza said that because WOMAN, Inc.’s main service is its 24-hour support line, what the organization offers mostly hasn’t been affected.

However, she said she’s heard courts are cutting back on family law proceedings, making it more difficult for victims and survivors to advance in immigration, divorce and child custody hearings.

Stewart reaffirmed that while it’s too early into the pandemic for hard data, Futures Without Violence has heard that victims and survivors are facing many difficulties with child custody.

She also said that while judges often issue protective 24- to 48-hour emergency protective orders, they are more hesitant to issue longer-term protective orders until people appear before a court or potentially present evidence. These kinds of court proceedings are becoming more difficult to schedule, she said.

Stewart said her organization has been hearing that in fear of the novel coronavirus, some victims and survivors in shelters are considering returning home to an abusive partner or finding an apartment. However, job insecurity amid the pandemic has made it more difficult to do the latter. Additionally, some shelters are taking fewer people due to social distancing, Stewart said.

Advocates urged victims to call a hotline if possible. They also suggested that other people reach out to victims and survivors to offer support or lend an ear, although Black added that it’s crucial to do so carefully, since abusers who feel like they’re losing control could respond violently.

Stewart said she hoped that organizations against domestic violence would expand the resources available online, like child welfare services. Futures Without Violence is also calling for paid sick leave for longer than two weeks for everyone during the pandemic, she said.

Groups like La Casa de las Madres could use take donations to get through this time, Bravo said.

dhorowitz@sfexaminer.com

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