As the country quarantines in response to the spread of Coronavirus, some people find the home to be a dangerous place. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is already reporting that domestic abusers have been using the pandemic to further isolate their victims. To assess the situation in New York City, learn how domestic violence assistance works and how to help a victim, Bklyner talked with Maureen Curtis, the Vice President of the Criminal Justice program at Safe Horizon.
Safe Horizon was started in 1978 and is the leading victim assistance nonprofit organization in NYC. They provide shelter, counsel, help connect with resources and navigate legal environments. Although their hotline hasn’t seen an increase or decrease in calls yet, Curtis warns of an incoming and escalating crisis for domestic violence victims and shares some tips on how to help.
How do your shelters currently function?
Maureen Curtis (MC): Our shelters are still accepting people in need. So these programs are pretty much operating face to face, as they normally would.
Shelters also provide services once you’re in. That could be safety planning, counseling, housing assistance. Considering social distancing, they may do things remotely: they may suspend groups that they may be doing. Considering what are needs, and how these needs can be accommodated so for example, they may have done a support group, but the support can be provided remotely, so that even though [people in the shelter] are all in the same building, they’re not congregating together in one room.
These are the different things that they’re doing differently to take care of residents to ensure that they adhere to what the CDC [Center for Disease Control] is saying.
What are your worries around the situation surrounding domestic violence during the pandemic?
MC: My biggest worry is how long is this going to go on. The longer that this goes on, we’re going to see an impact on our economy. And we know that so many of the people that we provide services to, historically, in our agency are working class, living from paycheck to paycheck.
Then also, it is going to have an impact on the clients that we work with, whether it’ll be their spouse [or themselves], losing their job and that’s just going to add another tension in the home that could potentially escalate the violence. Or maybe escalating from emotional violence to physical violence. The safety plans that victims set up for themselves could start to disintegrate because of the economy.
Even before the coronavirus, if you were to ask survivors as well as domestic violence advocates working with survivors what were the two things that would help them get to a safe point, and historically, since I’ve been doing this work — and I’ve been doing it over 30 years — it’s always been: safe, affordable housing and financial means.
Often, decisions to stay [in an abusive household] are connected to these two really concrete needs that they can’t meet, because they’re afraid that they’re not going to be able to meet those needs. When you think about the risk of physical violence versus the risk of being homeless in a shelter with your children, many survivors choose to stay and manage the risk of that physical violence, rather than flee into the unknown where they don’t know if they will be able to find another home.
Do you have specific advice on what people do, or what people can do if they hear their neighbor or their friend is experiencing abuse during that time of confinement?
MC: If they feel that there’s something threatening that is happening and they’re hearing their neighbor call for help, as they would in any situation, they should call 911, to seek help for that person. They can also talk to their neighbor. Sometimes just knowing that somebody cares about them can really be meaningful for that person.
The other thing that I think is really important is — really be careful not to judge the person and whatever decisions that they’re making.
We typically, as a society, underestimate how complicated domestic violence is and how difficult or under what umbrella survivors are making their decisions, day in and day out. And because we don’t necessarily consider that, we judge people and we blame people. [For example,] if I hear a person [in distress] where I think, “oh my god I need to call 911.” And you’re listening at the door and you hear the police respond and the people in the apartment are saying “everything’s okay,” meanwhile you heard something totally different, don’t judge that person for that.
And when you can, talk to that person in a non-judgmental, non-blaming way and try to understand that this could be a way of safety planning for that person, that they know they don’t have an easy way to leave at this point, maybe that’s the best way that they have right now.
There are some misconceptions around what a domestic violence shelter is, could you explain just what a shelter is?
MC: Domestic violence shelters are different from homeless shelters in that a person who goes into a domestic violence shelter could be a man, a woman or a woman or a man with children that go into a domestic violence shelter based on their need to flee an abusive relationship.
Most of the shelter placements in New York City go through the Safe Horizon’s Domestic Violence Hotline. They do an assessment and then place the individual or the family (if it’s a woman or a man with children) to a shelter that meets their size and their needs. And one of the biggest differences between domestic violence and homeless is confidentiality.
If I go into a homeless shelter system, it’s not confidential. So if my husband who is abusing me knows I went into a homeless shelter, the person who I may speak with at the shelter or at the entry point of that shelter is not bound by confidentiality. There’s also a variety of services that are provided for survivors who go into shelter and their children.
Domestic violence shelters are as beautiful as a shelter can be where a family can go. And then the last thing is that they are time-limited. You can only stay there for 90 days with the possibility of two extensions, up to 180 days which is a total of six months in the shelter.
Do you feel there are things missing from the conversation around confinement and social distancing that relate to the issue of domestic violence?
MC: The main thing is, and we would say this all the time before, is that you’re not alone. Help is available. This [situation] is different, and in some ways, is making it more complicated or potentially more of a threat of violence for those who are forced now to live in close proximity. But the important thing for survivors is that you’re not alone and help is still available, even though it may not be face-to-face. It is still available remotely, all the systems that were there pre-coronavirus such as police, courts, shelters and advocates are here to help them.
If you are experiencing violence at home, you can call the Safe Horizon hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE (4673) and they will help you get the help you need and learn more about what your options are. You can also look through their website to get more information.
This interview was edited for clarity.