Even before the coronavirus pandemic, a third of all Texans experienced domestic violence at some point in their lifetimes. Now the risk is even higher. Victims are quarantined at home with their partners, which can lead to more frequent or severe abuse, as well as fewer moments of relief—a commute, an errand, a visit with friends. The result is a troubling increase in calls for help across the state’s major cities. Meanwhile, calls have actually declined in some rural areas—a worrying sign, advocates say, that victims may be finding it more difficult to ask for help. Shelters and other organizations are working overtime to bridge the gap.
After stay-at-home orders were issued across Texas in March, reports of domestic violence calls surged in all major metro areas. Within the first week of Harris County’s March 24 stay-at-home order, the Houston Area Women’s Center reported a 40 percent jump in calls and requests for shelter. In Dallas, the city’s police department reported a 20 percent increase in domestic violence reports from February to March. In San Antonio, where University of Texas at San Antonio researchers reported higher death rates from domestic violence than in other large Texas cities, the local police department reported an 18 percent spike in calls compared with March of last year.
“There’s such a heightened sense of anxiety and frustration already, so if you are in an abusive relationship right now, it’s leaving people in an incredibly vulnerable state,” says Lori Rodriguez, a survivor of domestic violence who now volunteers as an advocate. “To be trapped with an abuser, especially if one or both members of the household have lost their jobs, it can increase their need to control and abuse their partner. And if you don’t know the resources that are available to you, or you’re not able to find a way to call and get help, it makes it that much harder.”
As the city’s stay-at-home order was going into effect, San Antonio’s Family Justice Center created an emergency website that allows people to apply online for a protective order (a court order instructing a person to desist from abusing or harassing the petitioner). Within the first week, they say they received more than 350 applications.
“With abusers, it’s about power and control,” says Crystal Chandler, executive director of the Family Justice Center. “COVID-19 is just another tool that abusers can use to exercise their power and control. They can use it to isolate and coerce their victims, and use this pandemic to their advantage to manipulate the victim into thinking that they don’t have any resources available to them.”
Outside of the major metropolitan areas, it’s even more difficult for survivors to access shelters, legal aid, and safety. According to Gloria Terry, CEO of the Texas Council on Family Violence, while the number of domestic violence calls in urban and suburban parts of the state is increasing, rural areas have seen a downturn. Shelters including Gateway Family Services in Snyder, the Noah Project in Abilene, and the Women’s Center of Brazoria County all report fewer calls to their crisis hotlines since the pandemic began. According to Lyndia Allen, Gateway’s executive director, only two new victims entered the shelter in April, down from the usual average of ten to fourteen.
“To me, it makes sense,” Terry says. “When you’re in a rural community, it’s difficult to receive services and be very discreet about it. … Those complexities are amplified at this time. You may not have transportation that we would normally have. You may not have that window of opportunity because your partner is there at the house with you. You’re just not going to be able to access safety in the same way.”
Organizations and shelters are trying to fill the gap between rural survivors and the services they need to attain safety. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) and the Texas Advocacy Project (TAP) both provide free legal-aid services for domestic violence victims. They also partner with shelters across the state to ensure that they’re reaching victims who are having trouble accessing them or who aren’t aware that there are resources available. For the nearly 500,000 Texans who lack high-speed internet access, TAP built a messaging application to easily connect victims with shelters and health care providers across the state. They plan to eventually provide the app at public libraries as well, though most of those are closed during the pandemic. “If you don’t have internet access at home, you can at least go somewhere that does,” says Heather Bellino, CEO of TAP. “It just provides you with a little bit more opportunity.”
The Purple Door, a shelter in Corpus Christi, serves the city and eleven of its surrounding counties. Jennifer Radcliffe-Jones, a victim advocate for rural counties, says that she and the survivors she works with are finding creative ways to stay in contact. While many are reaching her through phone calls and video chats, she’s also had victims with limited resources ask friends, neighbors, or family members to call her to set up a time to meet face-to-face for help.
When the stay-at-home orders began, Radcliffe-Jones and other victim advocates at the Purple Door called everyone who had reached out in the last six months, reminding them that services were still available. Radcliffe-Jones, who typically receives ten to fifteen calls daily, saw a stark decrease to one to two calls a day when the order began. Victim advocates are also providing weekly and biweekly wellness checks to see if clients need anything from counseling to food and diapers, and are also using this time as an access point. “When we bring [groceries] to them, we can have a conversation about what’s really going on,” Radcliffe-Jones says. “We can make a plan.”
While victim advocates bring the services of the Purple Door to survivors, another part of their job is transporting anyone in need to the nearest shelter. For all of Radcliffe-Jones’s clients, that’s the Purple Door, which is anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours away. She’s continuing to do this during the coronavirus pandemic; a day before we spoke, she drove someone to the Purple Door after meeting with them in a safe and public area.
Crisis help lines also offer services that extend beyond sheltering. At Bay Area Turning Point, a help line and shelter serving Houston and rural areas outside the city, trained staff offer safety planning and lethality assessments. For clients at the greatest risk, the group has partnered with counties to ensure that hotel rooms are available for victims to stay in. They also work with law enforcement to transport survivors from their homes to hotel rooms. (Family violence calls are some of the most dangerous calls officers encounter.)
Because getting information such as help-line phone numbers to survivors is so pivotal in ensuring their safety, everyone from shelters and advocacy groups to government officials is stepping in. According to Bellino, Houston Area Women’s Center is passing out information at food banks—something that TAP plans to do in Hays County soon—while even some school districts are providing resources. “We are working with other shelters, but we all are in this movement, for lack of a better word, to really get survivors in care,” Bellino says. “I don’t want a survivor to ever think that because there is a pandemic going on there are no services for them, because there definitely are, and we’re working really hard to let survivors know that. … We will be there to support them.”
For victims who are feeling more isolated than usual, sometimes just receiving information about resources can change the course of their lives. Tina Carloni, a survivor of domestic violence who received legal aid from TAP four years ago, thought she had no way to reach help when she was in a relationship with her abuser. She was completely financially dependent and had a son with him. The first time she tried calling authorities after a severe altercation, her abuser took her phone away from her. Later, they had a fight that resulted in him stomping on and breaking her phone.
She convinced her abuser that she needed a phone for her part-time job, and when she went to an Apple store at the Barton Creek Square mall in Austin, the employee helping her noticed her unhealthy state—Carloni says she looked emaciated at the time and always had a blank stare because her thoughts were elsewhere. It was the first time she felt her fears were validated. “He’s one of the reasons why I got out of the abusive relationship that I was in,” Carloni says. “He just simply reached his hand out to me and said, ‘Hey, you know, there are people that can help you. There are things that can be done.’”
The next time Carloni contacted the authorities, her abuser threw her new phone through a wall, breaking it again. This time, Carloni was terrified for her life and that of her one-year-old son. She grabbed him and ran to a neighbor’s apartment, where they hid in a closet and called 911. The police arrested Carloni’s abuser and issued an emergency protective order.
“For me, I shared my story with somebody who worked at an Apple store when I was trying to get my phone replaced, and it changed my life,” Carloni says. “If I wouldn’t have shared my story with him, I don’t know where I would be. Even if you share your story with a nurse at a doctor’s office or in a hospital or anywhere, somebody somewhere is going to have the information that you need to give to you. You have to be willing to speak up and share your story so that somebody somewhere will give you the missing piece to the puzzle that you’re trying to solve.”