Domestic violence nonprofits prepare for increased abuse


One abuser cut off his partner’s phone service after she stopped going to work due to the coronavirus, leaving her completely isolated from friends, family, really anyone else but him. There have been other reports of an abuser withholding access to a partner’s medical care, or throwing a partner out on the street.  

“If you don’t do what I want you to do, if you challenge me in any way, I’m going to throw you out and you’re going to end up catching the virus and dying in a ditch somewhere because there’ll be no place for you to go,” Barbara Paradiso says she’s heard from one survivor. 

It’s examples like these that are causing domestic violence and child abuse organizations to prepare for an increased need for services to keep people safe in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders. 

“Most domestic violence happens in the home, proven through research; it doesn’t happen outside of the home,” says Paradiso, director at the Center on Domestic Violence at the University of Colorado Denver. “So when we say to people you have to stay at home with the person that is your abuser, then the risk increases exponentially.”

Add economic stress, the inability to work or leave the house, and a loss of control, and it creates a situation ripe for increased violence. 

“Domestic violence is about power and control and this is a situation where most of us are feeling powerless and out of control,” says Anne Tapp, executive director of Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN) in Boulder. “Even in relationships that haven’t been abusive, the level of stress and strain that people are experiencing is going to put people on edge.”

Fielding roughly 8,700 calls a year, SPAN’s crisis hotline hasn’t seen a large increase in use in recent weeks. Although, “We’re anticipating that it may increase over time as people are spending more time isolated with their partners,” Tapp says. 

In other areas of the world where people have already been required to stay home for weeks, reports of domestic violence have increased. In China, it’s been reported that incidents of domestic violence have almost doubled during the coronavirus lockdown. There have been concerns of similar patterns in Italy and Germany. 

When it comes to child abuse and neglect, the risk factors have also increased — social isolation, family stress, parenting stress, financial uncertainty and insecurity, and the absence of child care or school.

Yet, the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline has seen a significant drop in calls since Gov. Polis closed all schools through at least April 17, according to CO4Kids, a statewide effort to raise public awareness about child abuse and neglect. In just one week, the hotline saw 783 fewer calls, mainly attributed to the fact that under normal circumstances, 40% of calls to the hotline come from mandatory reporters such as teachers, school staff and child-care providers, who are no longer seeing children. 

“We are concerned about this significant drop in calls, particularly because children and youth who may be experiencing abuse and neglect are now home all day and isolated,” Minna Castillo Cohen, director of Colorado’s Office of Children, Youth and Families, said in a press release. 

“My kids have had friends over the years who I was worried about so… the idea of sheltering in those homes frightens me,” says Boulder City Council member Rachel Friend. Through the City’s hotline service, she asked staff last week to look into the issue, but as of the March 24 special Council meeting, no one has. 

She’s hoping to connect with experts at the City, state, Boulder County and local school boards to see if there’s something agencies can be looking at cohesively to help protect those in potential abusive situations. 

In response to the pandemic, emergency shelters around the state are adopting different policies to safely accommodate individuals and families in need of a safe place, and increasing other services like online counseling and support groups. 

SPAN has reduced its Boulder shelter capacity from 27 to 15 in order to provide appropriate distancing for their clients, with two rooms for isolation if someone is exhibiting symptoms. 

Annually, SPAN serves about 375 survivors of domestic violence and their kids in the emergency shelter, but that’s only a fraction of those who need help — the organization turns down 1,200 requests on average per year because it’s met capacity. SPAN does offer hotel vouchers, Tapp says. 

SPAN has spent an extra $10,000 a week due to the COVID-19 crisis, as the organization is helping clients with food and rent, and staff is working overtime to provide services and sanitizing the shelter regularly. 

Tapp encourages the entire community to be on the look out for potential abuse, as she expects an increase in reports and calls to law enforcement from neighbors and family members. And SPAN is encouraging its clients to share their situation more openly with people nearby, even developing code words with neighbors in the event that a situation gets out of hand. 

“One of the things that’s incredibly dangerous about both the virus and how we’re having to respond to it is that it’s increasing social isolation and disconnection and also fear and anxiety and suspicion of each other,” Tapp says. “But really we are in this together, and we can really do this well as a community or we can let it get the best of us. But if we’re in it for the long haul, I think we can make this work.”