Despite concerns that domestic violence would increase during this public health state of emergency, the Metropolitan Police Department contends there hasn’t been a significant change in the prevalence of those types of calls made during the coronavirus pandemic.

Even so, some leaders within the District’s nonprofit sector say that survivors, rather than turning to the authorities, have utilized the services of local domestic violence organizations, such as Northwest-based enriched housing provider House of Ruth.

House of Ruth has maintained its intake/information and referral system while providing supportive housing to families, several of whom recently escaped a violent situation while sequestered. Since last month, staff members have purchased groceries and cleaning supplies for the families living in their housing units.

For other families experiencing abuse, reaching such a milestone might take longer. House of Ruth Executive Director Sandra Jackson said that for some survivors, the halt to local economic and social activity in the District has delayed their execution of long-developed escape plans.

Sandra Jackson, House of Ruth executive director (Courtesy photo)
Sandra Jackson, House of Ruth executive director (Courtesy photo)

“We’re still doing counseling sessions, but doing it telephonically,” Jackson said. “We’re able to talk to people about safety even when they’re in the home, and not to give up on their plans. We’re able to talk to people about safety planning even when they’re in the home, and to determine the safest options in the short term, encouragement to not give up on their plans to escape abuse.

“For many, it has been a process to get to the place of leaving an abusive situation,” she said. “During this time, they are afraid to go because of the pandemic and they may have been impacted by the economic challenge of losing their job. They don’t know how the next few months will look. If they’re in imminent danger, we’re in no way telling them to stay in that situation. We brought families in during this pandemic because they were in imminent danger.”

The police department website references at least three local domestic violence resource centers, two emergency shelters, and several hotlines and legal services. A public information officer told The Informer that, during the pandemic, officers continue to respond to all domestic violence-related calls, and have been mandated to wear personal protective equipment and speak with the person who made the call outdoors, when possible, and at least six feet away from them.

A FOIA request has since been made for data on domestic violence incidents before and during the pandemic.

Similar concerns about domestic violence have sparked across the United States, and in countries like France and cities in Australia where officials have expanded housing and legal protections for survivors. On various social media platforms, posts have circulated suggesting that people in trouble can text a certain word or question to friends and family as a cry for help.

Once a person seeks assistance, whether they can escape abuse depends on the resources at their disposal, such as housing and employment. Domestic violence organizations, funded by public and private grants, have long attempted to fill these gaps.

For some, the pandemic has highlighted what Mercedes Lemp, executive director of My Sister’s Place, described as the need for more available housing.

Lemp said her organization provides transitional housing for 30 families. Funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness extend that arrangement beyond the summer months.

Right now, without much transitional housing movement allowed and an explosion in unemployment, staff members have left food packages while maintaining a vibrant hotline.

“We know that domestic violence increases during traumatic times when everyone is being quarantined and such,” Lemp said. “We expect a surge [but] our capacity is always full. The best we can do and what we plan to do is provide mobile advocacy. We can increase the number of survivors we’re advising.”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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