Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
With people hunkered down under stay-at-home orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic, battling financial uncertainty with no end in sight, Bernalillo County has seen a large spike in domestic violence.
Domestic violence arrests jumped from 34 to 58 a week, and finally to 62, in the weeks following the governor’s March 23 order, according to the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office. The office said the caseload is actually much higher because those arrest numbers don’t account for court summons and nonarrest cases.
“This is a trend they’ve been seeing around the country, and around the world,” District Attorney Raúl Torrez said. “… The thing that concerns us the most is we have victims that are either unable to report the crime or, if they’re able to report the crime, feel like they’re going to be trapped with their offender.”
Advocacy groups say the pandemic has created a volatile scenario for those in abusive relationships as stay-at-home orders leave them isolated with their abuser at a time of surging unemployment and financial strain. Meanwhile, organizations geared toward helping victims are largely relegated to mobile devices for counseling and intervention as shelters are forced to cut their capacity to follow social distancing guidelines.
More calls for help
Vincent Galbiati, executive director at the Domestic Violence Resource Center, said the pandemic created the perfect storm of sorts for domestic violence.
“There’s not one set pattern, but you can imagine that if you are isolated as a victim with your abuser, it’s an incredibly vulnerable, and at times dangerous, situation,” he said.
Over the past month, Galbiati said, the DVRC has seen an increase of about 80% in all services including their help line, remote counseling and intakes. Usually their intake is around 350 victims each month, but since the COVID-19 shutdown began, that number has jumped to 450. Galbiati said he expects it to peak at 650 victims a month.
“When this became something that we felt could compromise our operations, we pulled our directors together and went through, I’ll call it, a ‘war room scenario,'” he said. “… We’re just not planning for the next six weeks – we’re planning for the next six months.”
Galbiati said that planning included prioritizing DVRC’s abilities to reach and counsel victims remotely, which can be a double-edged sword, as it can serve as either a bridge or a barrier depending on the victim’s situation. In the “most dire” cases, where a restraining order or relocation is needed, DVRC will still be there in person.
“What it really boils down to, in every case where there is a victim that is under immediate or dire threat, they need services and we’re just not going to deny that. That’s just not part of our culture,” he said.
But, like Torrez, Galbiati worries about those who are too afraid to reach out.
“If you are in a situation that you’re isolated, you’re just not going to take a risk. Even reaching out to DVRC constitutes a risk,” he said. “You’re not going to try to provoke any situation that may turn violent, and you are also not going to turn to help in the event that your abuser realizes you’re trying to get yourself out of that situation. It’s a huge, huge concern.”
Trouble for immigrants
Claudia Medina, executive director of Enlace Comunitario, said for the women her organization serves, mostly undocumented immigrants, this is an especially trying time.
“They don’t qualify for the stimulus package, they don’t get unemployment, so those things compound the daily stressors,” Medina said. “They don’t speak English, so navigating the information about COVID-19 is hard.”
Medina said they haven’t necessarily seen an increase in the number of clients, which hovers around 1,000, but the amount of services they need when they come in “are massive.” With little access to health care, lack of resources from the government and language barriers, she said, “They really, really are in a tough situation.”
“In addition to all those factors that most Americans are facing right now, they have the undocumented status and domestic violence on top of that,” Medina said.
The organization is now helping women by providing food, paying utilities and rent, and applying for funding to give more cash assistance. They have also had to switch over to remote counseling, which is not as effective as group therapy, where women can lean on each other, exchange phone numbers and create crucial networks for support.
“She doesn’t have people that can listen to her, and she cannot really cry and scream of anguish – with the counselors they can unload all that grief and all that anger and start building resilience and coping mechanisms,” she said. “… Most of us are immigrants ourselves, so they really connect to us on so many levels, they feel at home … That is something we cannot replicate when we make a phone call. We are trying, don’t get me wrong … but it’s challenging and it’s not the same.”
Fear of infection
Patricia Gonzales, executive director at S.A.F.E. House New Mexico, said her group initially saw a drop in crisis calls and intakes to the shelter. She believes victims were hesitant to seek help because they feared contracting the virus.
“I suspect people were kind of hunkered down at home, afraid to leave, there was such an unknown about this virus,” Gonzales said. “In general, people coming into a shelter are afraid because it’s communal living. You don’t know who you’re sharing space with, where these people are coming from, whether they’ve been exposed or not.”
Since the reality that the pandemic is a long-term threat has sunk in, she said they’ve seen those numbers “creep back up” and more than double on some days.
“Roughly (we’ll see) one to two a day, maybe we don’t see any in a day, but to start having five to six, if not more, intakes a day, that’s high,” Gonzales said. “Even for us, being the largest shelter in the state.”
Making matters worse, she said, they have had to cut their shelter capacity, from 85 to 40, to abide by social distancing regulations.
“Right now we are at about half-capacity, that we can adequately serve individuals and still keep social distancing. And so, everyone else we are putting them up in hotels,” Gonzales said.
“What it’s going to look like in another two or three weeks, I’m not sure,” she added.
Despite any uncertainty, Gonzales said she is not concerned about running out of space as the organization has received an “outpouring” of support from local hotels offering rooms for victims.
“I will tell you, Albuquerque is such an incredible community,” she said. “(I’m) so incredibly grateful to these folks in our community.”
Watching for resurgence
Looking ahead, Galbiati believes the domestic violence cases will move much like the virus, and this initial spike will plateau and then go down in May or June before it surges again and finally tapers off later into the year.
“I just think this second wave is what people have to pay attention to equally as what we’re paying attention to now,” he said.
Furthermore, Galbiati said, those surges, and any abuse that surfaces during this time, may spark a cultural shift that could send shock waves for years to come.
“The elevation of being isolated with a victim, I think it heightens everybody’s awareness that they are in situations that are volatile. I think what you’re going to see from this, and this elevation, is you’re going to see a new normal,” he said. “Let’s say DVRC is seeing 350 victims a month, to think that we are going to begin seeing, as our new normal, 500 a month is relatively predictable and probably will happen.”