COVID-19 has led to fewer options for domestic violence survivors

But Bay Area nonprofits continue to provide crucial service


Most of us know of at least one survivor of domestic abuse, no matter which part of the globe we live in — an aunt, a neighbor, a childhood friend, or a colleague. In San Francisco, in 2019, there were 8,647 calls to domestic violence crisis lines and 7,110 domestic violence-related calls to 9-1-1, according to a report by the Department on the Status of Women.

We don’t have 2020 numbers as yet, but I doubt the numbers will tell the whole story, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic and shelter-in-place orders have complicated the situation.

In a recent Zoom briefing, Dr. Ravi Chandra, who describes himself as a psychiatrist, writer and compassion educator in San Francisco, indicated that no real trends have emerged regarding the number of calls made this year by domestic violence survivors, even though most experts expect an increase, given that COVID-19 underscores risk factors for domestic violence.

Fawn Jade Korr, a senior staff attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid in San Francisco, corroborated Chandra’s assessment. At Korr’s firm, the number of calls seeking domestic violence help dropped significantly in March, went up in July, went down a bit in early fall, and is now going up again.

On the other hand, Jill Zawisza, executive director of W.O.M.A.N., Inc — a nonprofit serving survivors of domestic violence in The City — wrote in an email that “service provision has increased steadily over the pandemic.” According to its 2020 Annual Report, the nonprofit received 11,000 calls to its 24-hour hotline, and its Domestic Violence Information Referral Center had 125,000 hits this year.

These are significant numbers, especially since the pandemic has presented a number of hurdles for survivors of domestic violence.

The shelter-in-place instructions issued by The City administration, on and off since March, has led to increased isolation, a situation rife with opportunity for the dynamics of abuse, including aggression and coercion. With no safe way to make calls or contact the outside world for help, isolation can lead to loss of agency for those experiencing violence inside their homes.

In the midst of recurring lockdowns, it’s impossible to know how many people continue to tolerate physical and psychological abuse simply because they have no idea where to go or whom to approach for help.

A number of The City’s shelters closed for periods of time this year. Robert Avila, communications director of Glide, wrote that its Women’s Center, a safe space for domestic violence survivors, has been closed for much of the time since March.

Even when victims manage to locate a shelter, legal help — often the next step — can be difficult to find. Domestic violence survivors go through the court system for restraining orders, child custody, child support, divorce or immigration concerns. First, there are financial considerations for finding legal representation. For limited English language speakers, maneuvering through the court system can be extremely challenging. Then there are ongoing court delays with hearings pushed out significantly, said Korr.

In Korr’s opinion, implicit bias training, a necessary component in shaping how to respond to survivors, is less than adequate for the court system and law enforcement. “Who is the survivor? Is she a white woman asking for protection or is she a woman of color? Is she someone from a culture who is not comfortable talking about sexual abuse in open court in front of a bunch of male judicial officers? Or is it a black woman whose credibility is always going to be questioned more sharply than any other intersectional identity?” asked Korr, suggesting that experiencing bias can become an insurmountable issue for survivors of color.

Given all these problems, is there any ray of light? Yes, there is.

There are a number of nonprofits offering domestic violence services in The City. The San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium is a good place to look for them. These organizations offer services that interconnect with each other, in terms of shelter, counseling and legal aid.

Bay Area Legal Aid, according to Korr, offers free services to low income individuals in the Bay Area. And Korr said that her firm works with The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and the San Francisco Police Department and they are “all in communication with each other to help survivors.”

While most organizations justifiably and necessarily focus on DV survivors, Glide’s Men in Progress (MIP) program counsels perpetrators on changing aggressive patterns of behavior. Saundra Haggerty is the group facilitator and case manager for MIP. In an email she wrote that MIP has seen a rise in both, the number of men court-ordered to complete a 52-week batterer’s intervention program, and women asking how they can get their male counterparts into the program. She also said that she receives calls from men asking for help. “Many of them state that it is difficult for them because they are in the house with their partners and kids. They talk about not having a release from all the pressures due to COVID and most admit that they take out their frustration on their female partners and children.” Programs like MIP are critical, if not essential, to keep women and children safe.

I’ll end with a story told by Beckie Masaki, co founder and former executive director of Asian Women’s shelter, in a virtual session organized by Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach. A neighbor realized that the woman next door — let’s call her Ann — was dealing with recurring violence. The neighbor checked in on Ann frequently, inviting her to come over to her house, in order to draw Ann out of her isolation and to offer her a safe space. Despite Ann’s refusals, the neighbor persisted. Finally, Ann showed up at the neighbor’s house, and disclosed details about the abuse she was experiencing inside her home. With the help of the neighbor, Ann managed to escape her situation.

That neighbor could be you or me. This is something for us to consider. Paying attention, observing, being mindful could make the difference to someone else’s life. For as Masaki said, everyone deserves to live a life without violence.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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