The phones at the Lincoln County Coalition Against Domestic Violence have been oddly quiet. Does that mean that there’s been no domestic abuse happening? Likely not. It can be hard to guage the level of domestic violence, especially during a pandemic when families are essentially confined to homes and a victim can’t easily escape an abuser. While the stay at home order has been lifted, times are still exceedingly stressful for many. That tension could well cause tempers to flare and abusers to lash out.
Throughout the pandemic, the Lincoln County Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Amy’s House has continued to operate on an as normal basis as is possible, according to Director Robert Dalton.
“I think people assumed that everything was shut down,” he said. “We have not. We’ve continued to provide every service. We may do them a little differently. We know that in talking to the sheriff’s office and the Lincolnton Police Department that they’ve been seeing a significant increase in calls about domestic violence. We know that the national hotline is seeing an uptick in calls looking for information.”
The working theory on the reduced call volume locally is that people are calling 911 when there’s an immediate issue and calling the national hotline for information and safety planning. Staff at DV shelters like Amy’s House, Lincoln County’s only domestic abuse shelter, are anticipating a surge of requests from victims once the shelter in place order ends and things get a bit more normal.
“There’s a bit of a remove there,” Dalton said. “If you’re calling a national number they’re not in your neighborhood. They’re planning for the future, but they’re not calling us because they’re not ready to make a move yet.”
The trauma experienced by domestic violence victims is deep, Dalton added. Everything becomes about trying to avoid angering the person and trying to avoid more abuse happening. It overtakes everything else in life.
A lot of times, victim is able to make a call to a domestic violence shelter when the abuser has left to go to work or somewhere else, according to Tabitha Miller, the program manager at the Lincoln County Coalition Against Domestic Violence who is a domestic abuse survivor herself.
“If the abuser isn’t leaving the home, then the victim doesn’t have the ability to make a call,” she said.
While nonessential businesses are able to open now during Phase 1 in North Carolina, a lot of businesses, like restaurants, bars, gyms and the like still can’t open. Due to decreased business, even if a business is open, they may have reduced hours or laid off employees.
“A lot of times what we see, when we don’t have a pandemic going on, is a victim will plan their leaving while he’s at work,” Miller said. “That may be another reason why we’re not getting a lot of calls.”
No matter how hard life is with an abuser, the thought of leaving, the unknown, is very frightening and takes some victims years to work through. Plus, an abuser doesn’t start out a relationship with a victim with violence. He (or she) is usually very sweet, charming and complimentary.
“There’s an emotional component that a lot of people don’t usually think about,” Miller said. “They pick us out like beacons in the night as far as reading our body language. It tells them that ‘hey, she’s a good one. She’s got low self-esteem; she doesn’t have a lot of self-confidence.’ We fall in love with a lie. It’s really hard to let that lie go.“
Considering the stress that many people are suffering through due to the loss of a job, reduced hours, fear of getting sick and all the other anxieties prevalent to these times, there may not have been abuse before, but the pandemic could well trigger it.
Abuse comes in many forms, it isn’t just physical abuse, there’s verbal, financial, sexual, emotional and psychological.
“If you’ve got a young woman who didn’t graduate from high school,” Miller said. “She hooks up with this guy and he keeps getting her pregnant. How is a woman who’s now 23 with four children and no high school diploma going to get out? How’s she going to take care of herself? They do it intentionally because they know she can’t go anywhere.”
Amy’s House is almost always full. Fundraising has been ongoing to build a much larger shelter so more people can be served. Not only will the shelter be larger, but more security measures will be able to be built in place that aren’t possible with the current location.
“Anybody who calls us and needs shelter, we make sure they have a safe place to go,” Dalton said. “We’ve done this through the pandemic, but with the surge we’re expecting, we may need to be more creative. We’re anticipating this to be system wide.”
It’s difficult for Miller to think about what it might have been like for her to be stuck at home during a pandemic with her abuser.
“I remember when my son was very young and I’d leave work and just drive around because I didn’t want to go home because I knew when I did, it’d be pure Hell,” she said. “The thought of being in a stay at home order is just horrific.”
Back when Miller was involved in abusive relationships, there weren’t shelters like Amy’s House or other resources available to her. She managed to turn her life around and now she’s an advocate for domestic violence victims.
“As we tell all the people we deal with, ‘we’re sorry we have to meet you under these circumstances, but we’re very glad to get to help you,’” Dalton said. “I’m always honored to be able to hear their stories. We know that people right now are enduring domestic abuse at the hands of a loved one because they don’t know that they have somewhere else to go or don’t see a way out now. It’s a difficult step under the best of circumstances. I think the pandemic has made it harder than ever. We’re continuing to work with those that we can who call us, but we’re really planning for a surge.”
The Lincoln County Coalition Against Domestic Violence operates a 24-hour domestic violence crisis line at (704) 736-1224 where victims can access information about domestic violence services.