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Virus behind rise in domestic violence incidents

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Incidents of domestic violence are increasing and may increase more if coronavirus restrictions are loosened, according to an Albuquerque-based coalition that represents 32 local domestic violence groups statewide.

“It (domestic violence) has increased in many places and in others stayed the same,” Gwyn Kaitis, policy coordinator for the New Mexico Coalition Against Violence, said in a phone interview. “We think it is going to increase as things open up.”

That’s because victims are likely to have better access to services to assist them. Kaitis said reported incidents seem to have increased more in urban areas because of more access to programs and transportation.

“The violence has increased in both severity and numbers, and we are hearing that from offenders themselves,” said Kaitis.

“They (abusers) are stuck at home and they are unemployed with the kids at home,” she said. “That’s not causing the violence, but it certainly can exacerbate the violence.”

Local coalition groups run domestic violence shelters, advocacy programs and batterer intervention programs.

“We do all the training, advocacy and legislative work,” said Kaitis.

In Santa Fe, a cursory review of the number of domestic violence misdemeanors and felonies filed in 1st Judicial District Court between March 20 to Aug. 1 shows the numbers are down slightly, from 297 to 287, over the same period last year.

But Chief Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Padgett Macias, who provided the numbers, said they reflect only the cases where law enforcement responded to a criminal complaint.

“While our numbers do not reflect that uptick, many victims of domestic violence may seek guidance, support and assistance without reporting the incident(s) to law enforcement,” she wrote in an email to the Journal.

So she’s not surprised that Kaitis and Anji Estrellas, of Santa Fe’s Esperanza Shelter, report having seen increased cases of abuse since the pandemic started and people are spending more time at home.

“It is without question that we are concerned that isolation puts vulnerable women, partners and children at risk, and we trust that the domestic violence providers are seeing an uptick in domestic violence incidents as a result of isolation.”

At Esperanza Shelter, where domestic violence victims go to escape abuse, there has been an increase in the level of domestic violence coupled with more requests from victims for shelter, according to Estrellas, the shelter’s executive director.

“Our shelter has been continuously full since mid-March,” Estrellas said.

Perpetrators can use current virus circumstances to facilitate abuse and domestic violence experts said.

“It’s a very dangerous time for survivors,” said Estrellas. “The abusers are using the shelter-in-place order to control, manipulate and isolate their victims.”

The unique backdrop of the coronavirus virus underscores the complications the virus can introduce into domestic violence situations.

Before the virus, victims could more easily leave their homes and abusers to call for assistance, said Kaitis. “Now they are at home together, it reduces the ability to call for help,” she said.

Estrellas recalled one incident in which a domestic violence victim was sent into a store by her abuser to buy milk and borrowed a stranger’s phone to call for help. But the call was truncated and the victim never called back.

Putting numbers on the increase in domestic violence can be difficult and varies depending on the area, Kaitis said. She estimated the increases have ranged from 30% to 80%.

Not surprisingly, the coronavirus has had impact on domestic violence worldwide.

“For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest. In their own homes … . We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19. But they can trap women with abusive partners,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said on the organization’s website.

Roughly 243 million women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 have been subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner in the past 12 months, the website states.

Esperanza Shelter can take in from 19 to 25 people, with 3-6 persons per room; they now also use motel rooms to allow space for social distancing in shelters.

Spaces in shelters around the state are filled within one to two days, said Estrellas.

“Our average shelter stay has doubled from 29 days to 65 days,” said Estrellas, adding that several stays have been over 100 days in duration.

Esperanza also has a nonresidential after-care program that can run from six months to three or four years. The nonprofit organization also has male clients, Estrellas said, but she noted that in 90% of domestic violence incidents, men are using violence against women and children.

The coronavirus era has brought added costs for the local shelter, according to Estrellas, including for food, renting other housing and cellphones for residents to allow children to keep up with school work.

Kaitis said the Coalition has received some state and federal pandemic care aid, but “the problem is we don’t know how long this is going to last.”

She emphasized that victims can still get domestic violence orders from the courts.

One curious outcome during this time, said Kaitis, deals with offenders in online treatment groups.

“The guys are more engaged in their treatment,” she said.

For friends and relatives of domestic violence victims, “the number one thing is to be compassionate and supportive,” said Estrellas. “It is not a simple matter of I am going to pick up and leave.”

Those friends and relatives can go to the Esperanza website – – for tips on how to be supportive, and also call the crisis line.

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