Coronavirus crisis sparks increase in domestic violence in Philadelphia

A Women Against Abuse staffer answers an abuse hotline (Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune/Women Against Abuse)

By Ayana Jones

PHILADELPHIA — More calls have been coming in to Philadelphia’s domestic violence hotline as people have been confined to their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the first week after the stay-at-home order, we saw a 30 percent increase in calls on the hotline when we were answering it,” said Jeannine L. Lisitski, executive director and president of Women Against Abuse, the city’s leading domestic violence agency.

The agency, which leads operations for the hotline staffed by four organizations, received 187 calls from March 10 to March 30. The hotline received 160 calls during the same period last year.

“One thing that we do know is that isolation is part of the dynamics of abuse, where a perpetrator will try to isolate the victim, so that they don’t have the social network and support, so that their world narrows to only that person,” Lisitski said

“In these times of being isolated and in an economic downturn, we also know that abuse is exacerbated.”

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Amanda M. Stylianou, a national expert on domestic violence based at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, said abuse is expected to increase in both its frequency and intensity during this time of crisis.

“For survivors that may have depended on leaving the home for periods of time as an escape from abuse, that safety option is no longer available to them, so this current state of isolation can really have a devastating impact on the safety, health and well being of survivors,” she said.

Stylianou noted job loss or struggling to meet basic financial needs can increase stress on families and abuse in homes.

“We’re also hearing stories about survivors who have left abusive partners prior to the coronavirus outbreak and are now returning because they have concerns about their financial future,” she said.

“They left the abusive homes, potentially with their children, at a time when there were more job opportunities and now they are facing a lot of financial uncertainty, so some of them have been returning home because they are facing this choice between physical and financial security.”

Stylianou said it’s important that domestic violence survivors reach out for support.

“We have thousands of staff and volunteers that are available throughout the country that are available to answer hotlines,” she added.

“They deeply care about the safety and well-being of survivors. The message is continue to reach out. We know that the abuse is going to increase, so that’s why the services is available and ready.”

Meanwhile, Women Against Abuse has been working to share information with community partners and city agencies who may be interacting with domestic violence survivors.

“If you’re being monitored day and night and you can’t go out for anything, then you don’t really don’t have an opportunity to reach out for help,” Lisitski said.

“We’re hoping that the partners — the police, the courts, the hospitals and child welfare, anyone who is interacting with people — that they are informed of how to get help for survivors of domestic violence and how to help people where they are.”

Ayana Jones is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.