Incidents of domestic violence have been on a sharp rise amid nationwide shelter-in-place orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, said panelists July 14 at a virtual briefing organized by Indian American Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California.
Khanna acknowledged the spike in domestic violence and intimate partner abuse cases during the briefing, moderated by his district officer Swapanthi Mandalika. “We must be aware that people don’t have the resources to get help as they did during normal life.”
Bindu Oomen Fernandes, executive director of Narika, said: “We know that many people cannot reach out. A lot of our survivors don’t have a phone or a laptop or those things may have been taken away from them or are being monitored.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic set down in the U.S., victims of domestic violence found themselves trapped at home with an abusive spouse. Resources such as emergency shelters, counseling, court services and legal aid have been sharply curtailed during the COVID crisis.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported that it had received 62,413 calls, chats, and text messages during the period between March 16 to May 16, when much of the U.S. was under state-imposed lockdown orders. The hotline reported that contacts had risen by 9 percent.
About 6,210 of the victims contacting the hotline reported COVID-19 as being a factor in the abuse. Seventy-eight percent of the calls were from women and almost half were from survivors between the ages of 25 to 45. Alarmingly, 9 percent of contacts were from victims under the age of 18.
Fernandes said that the majority of contacts to Narika’s hotline were from victims who had lost their jobs and had the additional stresses of being able to feed their families and to pay rent. “We’ve never been in the food delivery business,” she said, noting nonetheless that Narika volunteers have been taking food to the homes of victims three times a week. The organization also has some funds to help people pay their bills.
Esther Peralez-Dieckmann, executive director at Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence, said the pandemic has greatly impacted her organization’s ability to bring in new clients into emergency shelter, for fear of spreading the deadly virus. She noted that the need for intervention was greater than ever.
“Domestic violence is linked to multiple layers of trauma, poor health, and escalating health needs,” she said, noting that the current immigration climate also adds a level of complexity.
Perpetrators of domestic violence often wield their victim’s immigration status as a tool of abuse. Victims often never see their immigration papers and passports, or those of their children. Abusive partners will misleadingly tell their victims that their immigration status does not allow them to drive or work, further perpetuating the victim’s isolation, and allowing the abuser unfettered control.
Financial status is often used as a tool of abuse, said Fernandes, noting that even if a woman works, her money is often put into a joint account to which she has no access. Victims are often taken back to the home country and abandoned there — often without their children — and, without their immigration documents, have no way of returning to the U.S.
Newark, California-based immigration attorney Kalpana Peddibhotla said victims of domestic violence have two primary forms of federal protection: the Violence Against Women Act, and U visas, which are given to victims of crime who are willing to cooperate with law enforcement to prosecute their abusers. A U visa can be used by survivors who do not have permanent status in the U.S., and are not on track to attain permanent status.
Peddibhotla explained that survivors do not have to have police reports. Melissa Luke, program manager at Asian Americans for Community Involvement, noted that Asian American victims are often too scared to report their abuse. She noted that most AACI clients are in the service economy, which has taken a severe blow during the pandemic.
Several measures to protect victims of domestic violence are currently making the rounds in Congress. The Domestic Violence Public Health Emergency Act, introduced in the House by Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Virginia, on April 28, requires the Justice Department to issue guidance to law enforcement on best practices for addressing domestic violence during the COVID pandemic. The Fair Housing for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Survivors — which protects victims from being evicted solely because they are survivors — was introduced in the House by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida; and in the Senate by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Most significantly, the POWER Act — HR 6685, introduced in the House by Rep. Ben Cline, R-Virginia — would allow support services to keep their federal funding amid the pandemic.
Cline noted that, for the past three decades, DV organizations have received a match of $1 for every $5 received through fund-raising, via a federal program known as the Family Violence Prevention Services Act. Volunteer hours are also counted as donations and qualify for the matching funds.
While introducing his bill, Cline said that volunteer hours have been dramatically cut during the COVID-19 pandemic. H.R. 6685 temporarily waives the non-federal match requirement on FVPSA grant funds during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Georgia, a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a press statement: “Since this public health crisis began, the nation has seen a tragic increase in the frequency and severity of domestic violence claims. Organizations that provide resources for survivors and those experiencing violence need our support to continue to serve their communities.”
Resources for Victims of Domestic Violence:
*Narika hotline: 1-800-215-7308. Offers help in several South Asian languages.
*Maitri hotline: 1-888-862-4874. The organization offers a live response, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and voicemail is checked frequently outside of those hours.
*The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233.