As Harris County’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order remains in place for the fifth consecutive week, officials said the combination of encouraged isolation, coronavirus-related financial stressors and limited shelter space as a result of social distancing has created an ideal environment for escalated domestic violence.

“All of those things create a petri dish for domestic violence,” said Maisha Colter, the CEO of Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, a Houston-based organization that provides free legal representation and counseling for survivors of domestic abuse. “We’ve actually seen an uptick in calls for service related to victim programs ... specifically around the time when the stay-at-home orders started to come down.”

The same trend could be seen for most organizations dedicated to helping survivors of domestic violence, including Northwest Assistance Ministries’ Family Violence Center, the Houston Area Women’s Center, the Children’s Assessment Center and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which has a dedicated Domestic Violence Unit and Crime Victim Assistance Unit.

"Stay-at-home measures may help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but home may not be the safest place," said Chau Nguyen, chief public strategies officer for the Houston Area Women's Center. "Calls to the hotlines have spiked up to 40% on some days, averaging about 60-80 domestic violence-related calls a day."

According to data from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, while calls related to domestic violence saw an overall 10.28% decrease between the months of January and February, that number shot back up in March by 19.84% with 1,558 domestic violence-related calls reported countywide.

“Our call volume has seen a gradual increase since the end of February in all categories of family violence,” HCSO Director of Public Affairs Jason Spencer said. “People are confined from their homes, [and] many people are not working or working from home. Those that are not working have no income so their stress is up, which can cause them to lash out much more quickly. For the batterer, they are home more, which gives them more access to the victim.”

A 'petri dish' for domestic abuse

On top of these increases in calls, officials added they suspect actual incidences of domestic violence are much higher as more cases are going unreported as connections to the outside world are more limited.

“Traditionally, that batterer will try to keep their [partner] away from other people in their life, so what an ideal situation right now that even the president has said ‘Stay Home and stay away from people,’” said Sheryl Johnson, the director of NAM’s Family Violence Center. “For an abuser, that’s giving him permission to make sure that she stays at home and does the things he wants her to do and he can treat her in whatever way he wants and she has no way to reach out. Isolation is literally just exaggerating any abuse that might have been taking place previously.”

The same can be said for incidences of child abuse, said Sarah Hernandez, the communications and outreach coordinator for The Children’s Assessment Center, as many children are now separated from adults they trust such as teachers, who are also mandated to report child abuse to the state. The Children’s Assessment Center is a Harris County-based organization that provides support for children who have experienced sexual abuse.

“Unfortunately, it is in times of crisis that our children become more vulnerable,” Hernandez said. “A number of studies indicate that the presence of stressful life events, [such as] limited resources, loss of income or job, and displacement, are all factors that can contribute to child abuse. Now, with children out of school, many families are having to consider alternative measures of child care. Unfortunately, this is when we see higher incidents of abuse.”

Additionally, while some victims of domestic violence may view a crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic as the "straw the breaks the camel's back" and take that opportunity to seek help, Johnson said many victims chose to cling to the family dynamic as an instinct throughout the duration of the crisis.

"Since everybody is at home, it's very likely that the children are seeing more than they've ever seen in the past because you can't hide it from everybody in the household all the time," Johnson said. "This also makes it more likely that the children will be actively involved in the violence or abuse—it will continue to escalate the longer we're in this scenario."

To make matters worse, for those who do choose to leave an abusive relationship, Spencer said many Greater Houston-area shelters have also had to cut bed space in half to comply with social distancing guidelines to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Johnson added while organizations such as NAM are able to fund emergency placements for families at local hotels, the shelter alternative is only a short-term solution that can be costly.

"In Harris County, we never have enough beds for everyone who's trying to seek safety in a domestic violence shelter," Johnson said. "Several of the domestic violence shelters in our areas have closed to new clients because they've already got a full house and they're practicing social distancing ... so it's even more difficult to get somebody into a shelter."

Finding sanctuary

Local officials offered several options for victims of domestic abuse to find refuge if he or she is stuck at home with the abuser. They recommended several tactics to consider during the ongoing pandemic, including confiding in someone the victim trusts, creating a safe space inside the home and coming up with a signal for when police intervention is needed.

"It's hard to encourage domestic violence survivors to [confide in someone they trust] because ultimately, domestic violence is a crime of secrecy," Colter said. "So people have not necessarily shared with people who would be an ally what they are experiencing or they have shared but they remain in that relationship or home and the ally starts to turn against them because they feel frustrated. So that's sort of an unfortunate cycle in which a lot of survivors find themselves."

Once those allies are made, Colter added having a code word or some other type of signal that could be used to notify the ally when police intervention is needed is also a good plan to have in place.

Colter also recommends creating a safe space in the house where there are no weapons or items that could be used as weapons. She also encourages families to make space when they are able to by talking a walk or a trip to the grocery story to de-escalate a heated situation.

"People are still able to go to the grocery store, the pharmacist—places like that might be a place of sanctuary right now for a victim of domestic violence," Colter said.

As with many past crises, Johnson added she anticipates domestic violence calls to continue to climb even after the stay-at-home orders are lifted.

"Quite frankly, the longer we're in this scenario and the longer [the victim] is isolated, the more entrenched some of those behaviors are going to become once we go back to 'normal life,'" she said.

Numbers to know

The following are just a few resources for someone who is either in a domestic violence situation and is seeking help or someone who is wanting to report a domestic violence situation. For emergencies, call 911.

  • Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse: 713-224-9911

  • The Children's Assessment Center: 713-986-3300

  • Crime Stoppers: 713-222-8477

  • Harris County Sheriff's Office: 713-274-9369 (Crime Victims Assistance Unit)

  • Houston Area Women's Center: 713-528-2121 (24-Hour Domestic Violence Hotline), 713-528-7273 (24-Hour Sexual Assault Hotline)

  • 24-Hour National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233

  • Northwest Assistance Ministries: 281-885-4673 (24-Hour Family Violence Hotline)