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How To Spot Domestic Abuse And Get Help During A Pandemic

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KUER's Caroline Ballard spoke with Jennifer Oxborrow, the executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, about how the coronavirus pandemic is intensifying abusive relationships.

Since people in Utah began widely practicing social distancing a few weeks ago, local law enforcement has reported a spike in domestic violence calls. But that number only reflects part of the problem, since many people don’t report abuse to police. KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with Jennifer Oxborrow, the executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, who says the global pandemic is intensifying abusive relationships.

Caroline Ballard: How is coronavirus impacting people experiencing abuse?

Jennifer Oxborrow: We're hearing a lot of different stressors from a lot of different angles. Overall, I think as stress is going up for individuals and families, stress is being especially exacerbated in dynamics where there's a history of abuse, violence, aggression. It's poured some fuel on that fire, and everything seems to be getting more intense.

CB: Have you seen an increase in the amount of people under this kind of stress and people who might be seeking resources?

JO: Yes. In the statewide hotlines at Utah Domestic Violence Coalition we saw an immediate increase in call volume. We also saw an increase in the severity of need for people, and some of our member programs like the YWCA have indicated that at least 50% to 60% of an increase has occurred within their programs. 

I know the Salt Lake Police Department reported about a 33% increase in domestic violence calls. The difference there is law enforcement, yes, is seeing more domestic violence calls, but our community-based programs are non-government organizations, and so we serve everyone whether they reported to law enforcement or not. 

And in fact, these are cases that are very difficult for victims to report. It's a very low prevalency rate of reporting domestic and sexual violence because those tend to be crimes that are perpetrated by someone that we know. So we [at UDVC] tend to see a larger uptick in the call for services.

CB: How is coronavirus making reaching out for help even more difficult?

JO: We're hearing from people that they haven't had an opportunity to make a private phone call or get online and look at something because they're sheltering with the person who's being abusive. We know that isolation is a very common tactic that an abusive person will use anyway, so the nature of our situation right now just plays right into that and can make it even more difficult for a survivor to reach out or explore their options for help.

CB: What are some ways an abuser might exploit the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing people are experiencing? 

JO: In Utah in particular, this is really interesting. Women tend to be overwhelmingly the victims of domestic violence and abuse in Utah, have a high number of dependents, children, and a low level of financial autonomy and independence to begin with. Now we add in all of the additional financial stressors that are coming along with the coronavirus outbreak, and I think it's taking a bad situation and making it even worse. 

We have economic empowerment programs. We can help people with housing support, so there's always help available for people. It may take a minute for us to figure out which resource is best suited and most accessible to someone, but we really hope that people will reach out to us for help.

CB: How can people spot abuse during social distancing?

JO: Isolation is one of the primary tactics for a highly abusive, controlling intimate partner and family member. Watch for isolation that goes above and beyond what we're all experiencing right now: if you're trying to reach out to someone and they're not able to respond to you at all, if something feels off.

If you’re not sure, you can call us at 1-800-897-5465 if you're concerned about someone and you're not sure how to safely start a conversation. We can help you figure out how to start that conversation.

CB: And what resources are available to individuals experiencing abuse?

JO: We have emergency housing. We have child advocacy services. We can help people navigate civil and criminal legal proceedings, including protective orders, divorces and child custody. 

People that are living with this are in charge of their next steps, their next decisions. And that's something that survivors have often been told to the contrary by their abusive partner. So you're in charge and you get to decide what's right for you. We never force anyone into any services that they don't want or need. But we're here and we're a large team, a large network of sister organizations that care about people and have resources to help.

  • If you or someone you know needs help, call the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition at 800-897-5465.
  • The Salt Lake City Police Department’s crisis line is 801-580-7969. 
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233.
  • The YWCA can be reached at (801) 537-8600.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

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