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Experts: Domestic violence threat rises as economic downturn, stay-at-home order linger because of coronavirus

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - 3/25/2020

Mar. 25--Domestic violence advocates say they are seeing an influx of calls related to the coronavirus, and many fear it will only continue as orders to stay home drag on.

"Isolation is always a tool of an abusive person," said Michelle Gibb, director of the Alle-Kiski Area Hope Center in Tarentum. "When a victim is isolated, (an abuser) can maintain greater control. Now, because of a medical emergency, it's imposed isolation."

The stress that comes with uncertainty, especially regarding work and finances, can exacerbate abuse in a home where violence is already an issue, she said.

Some callers to the center's hotline have reported being forced to wash their hands to the point of pain, forced to disinfect themselves and the house more than necessary, and threats of being thrown out of the house if they show signs of illness.

Gibb said she fears some in unsafe situations won't even be able to call hotlines for help.

"Other survivor calls have indicated an inability to find time and privacy to contact the hotline because abusive partners are working from home, laid off" or observing the stay-at-home order for Allegheny County, she said. "So even accessing services has become more difficult."

Nicole Molinaro, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Women's Center and Shelter, said her organization has seen the effect of those situations already.

Comparing last week to the same time frame last year, she said, calls are down 30%.

"We know that abuse is happening, and we assume it's happening more, yet the ability to call for help is decreasing," she said.

The need for shelter and other services doesn't diminish in a pandemic, experts said.

"We have been adapting, and we have been adjusting," said Ann Emmerling, executive director of the Blackburn Center in Hempfield. Whatever work that can reasonably be done from home, she said, is being done from home.

Employees are providing tele-health services and counseling, Emmerling said, and the center is still offering shelter services in locations that allow for more distancing. She declined to say where, in order to preserve the safety of victims staying there.

Gibb said the Hope Center's shelter is operational and full, and clients are being encouraged to shelter in place there.

Support services and counseling are still available by phone, and the limited number of in-person meetings that have to happen are being done from a safe social distance, she said.

"I think that because we are an organization that responds to emergency situations and critical needs, it makes us more uniquely positioned to always be thinking from a safety-planning standpoint," she said.

She said that anyone can call the center's hotline, including those who know someone in an abusive situation who isn't able to call themselves.

"They can still call us to get good information on how to best support that person," Gibb said.

The same is true for the women's center, Molinaro said. Anyone can call and pass along tips for safety planning. That can include trying to move to a room without weapons if an abuser becomes violent or having a code word to signal children to hide or call authorities. It's personal to each individual, she said.

An app, RUSafe, offers those experiencing domestic violence a "lethality assessment" and connects them with domestic violence services wherever they are.

Gibb said being adaptable will help the shelters get through the pandemic and provide critical and life-saving services throughout.

"The key is going to be putting our frustrations on the back burner," she said, "and remaining as flexible and calm as possible."

----Resources for help

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522

Greater Pittsburgh Women's Center and Shelter 24/7 hotline: 412-687-8005

Blackburn Center 24/7 hotline: 1-888-832-2272

A-K Hope Center 24/7 hotline: 1-888-299-4673

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, mguza@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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