Enemy at the Gate: Domestic violence is an epidemic under COVID

Domestic violence incidents have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, with reported emergency calls up by at least 70% . While social distancing, isolating and quarantining are mere nuisances for some of us, for others it’s a living nightmare. 

Victims of domestic abuse no longer have somewhere outside the home to go to, and the COVID economy has bestowed fresh financial precarity and uncertainty. Physical scars fade, but psychological damage lingers.

Zaida Hernandez, a member of Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships (SOAR), a grassroots task force and part of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the parallels between the effects of the pandemic, and the obstacles it created, were impossible to miss.


“For me, the fear is the connecting factor … a fear of leaving the house because something is going to happen. It’s the same fear that I experienced when I was being abused,” she said. “If I left the house, there were consequences to it. [The current] isolation is also the same. COVID brings back those feelings [of being] isolated from your loved ones.”

Being immunocompromised placed an added burden on Hernandez. “The longer this lasts, the more isolated I become,” she said. “My niece comes out once per week, and my friends I see from the door. And that’s it, I see everyone else from a computer. That is the gate to the outside.” 

RICADV director Tonya Harris says the pandemic has exposed a social ill that for decades remained in the shadows. The 10 member agencies comprising the coalition have labored to combat the multiple systemic barriers that engender domestic abuse, from the dearth of affordable housing to a lack of adequate funding and legal protections. They have also sought to increase the public’s awareness. As the vaccine rollout slowly shifts society back toward pre-pandemic normalcy, keeping these long-term issues in the spotlight is paramount.

“Home is not a safe place for everyone, especially for victims of domestic violence who may be living with their abuser. We must lift and recognize the immense fear survivors are experiencing right now,” said Harris.

Harris said that calls to domestic violence hotlines doubled since March 2020, with occasional upticks of over 90%. “We’ve seen spikes in demand for all services,” she continued.

“Through our advocacy and the work of our full member agencies, we served a total of 5,826 clients and had a total of 14,882 emergency shelter bed nights between March and September 2020 alone.”

Requests for shelter and housing are the most requested service, said Harris. “The lack of safe, healthy, and affordable housing affects victims of domestic violence deeply.”

It took a couple of months into the pandemic before Gina Raimondo addressed the issue publicly. Last April, during one of her briefings on the state’s response to the coronavirus, she vowed a “comprehensive” response to the increase in calls for service to state agencies and nonprofit organizations. 

According to data provided by Sgt. Heather Palumbo of the Rhode Island State Police Major Crimes Unit, 911 calls responding to domestic violence incidents were up between 70% and 80% from January between the months of April and October, and more than doubled in May and June. This increase remained steady through the final months of 2020, up about 50% from September through October. There were 1,544 felony domestic violence arrests in 2020 and 4,540 for misdemeanors.

Coalition members praised the Raimondo administration’s move to increase funding for shelter capacity, a major concern that disproportionately affects low-income and marginalized communities. Advocates say that while additional resources were welcomed, more is needed. Many victims stay with their abusers because they have no place else to go.

Ninety-nine percent of domestic violence victims experience financial abuse in their relationships. “Just as many others in our community, victims’ and survivors’ finances were highly impacted by the pandemic,” said Harris. “Most survivors stay or return due to the lack of financial resources. Survivors need financial support in the short term and measures that will increase their ability to support themselves in the long term.” 

Judy Earle, executive director of the Warwick-based Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center (EBCC), reiterated the call for funding, which in times of increased distress can be the difference between life and death. The federal COVID relief fund allocated dollars to keep up with demand, but the fear for many is whether the continuing after-effects will outlast the fiscal resources.

“The COVID-relief fund allowed us to improve our shelter and equip advocates with laptops and cell phones needed to serve clients remotely, which was appreciated,” Earle said. “The challenge on occasion was in staying within the guidelines of allowable expenses if our more critical needs fell outside the parameters of the grant.”

“Our shelter services were often at full capacity,” added EBCC director of residential services, Donna Coleman. “[But] we continued to provide comprehensive services to shelter residents throughout the pandemic.” 

Over in the East Bay region, the Women’s Resource Center saw a sharp growth in need. “We saw an increase in the number of calls and we also saw more intense needs among the victims reaching out to us,” said executive director Jessica Walsh. “Both new and existing clients were experiencing so many challenges at the same time. It put a strain on our resources.” 

Walsh added that education is key. Some of the signs of distress can be much more subtle than many people realize. “The pandemic magnified what we know was already happening and made it more visible to the public.”

For those directly experiencing abuse, and those who bear witness, help is available. In a time of social disconnection, reaching out can be a life saver. There were at least seven domestic violence homicides in Rhode Island in 2020.

“If you allow yourself to go down that road of isolation, you think about the times you were isolated from your own family and everything that happened during that time,” said Hernandez, who now works to help others enmeshed in situations like the one she escaped. “It’s the same feeling; someone else or something else is controlling your environment and your relationships just like your abuser did. [It was like] he was the gate.”

The Victims of Crime Helpline launched a 24/7 chat online available via the RICADV website. This provides survivors with different options to reach out for services in addition to calling the helpline (1-800-494-8100).