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Daily Journal
     March 31, 2020      #55-91 KDJ
Harbor House Executive Director Jenny Schoenwetter said crises can serve as a catalyst for more or worsened abuse because abusers mine the situation for tactics to assert power and control.

Daily Journal/Tiffany Blanchette//

Pandemic poses increased risks for domestic

Stephanie Markham

The coronavirus pandemic has a disturbing side effect — heightened risks of domestic violence.

Whether a community is facing a pandemic, a hurricane or any other form of widespread tragedy, these crisis situations often create a dangerous dynamic for those in abusive relationships.

Those who were living in a violent relationship before a disaster may experience violence of increasing severity afterward, as they may be separated from family, friends and other support systems that previously offered them some measure of protection, according to the World Health Organization.

Additional stressors such as unraveling social networks and loss of income during disasters can also leave some particularly vulnerable to domestic violence.

Jenny Shoenwetter, executive director of Harbor House of Kankakee County, said the organization is preparing for the possibility of an increased call load to its 24-hour hotline.

“It’s a very unique time to do safety planning,” she said. “I anticipate in the next two weeks, we are going to be very busy, unfortunately.”

In 2019, Harbor House worked with 543 survivors of domestic violence, about a 25 percent increase over the previous year. It also housed 99 individuals fleeing violent relationships, helped with more than 193 orders of protection, and answered more than 3,900 hotline calls, according to its website.

“Domestic violence cases are one of the most common kinds of cases that pass the state’s attorney’s desk,” Shoenwetter said. “It is very prevalent in our community.”

Uptick in cases

Kankakee County Assistant State’s Attorney Jim Rowe said 32 felony domestic violence offenders have been indicted since the last grand jury on March 2. These felony domestic battery cases involve strangulation, great bodily harm or a repeat offender.

Grand jury proceedings have been suspended because of the pandemic, but the state’s attorney’s office continues to file cases as direct charges and proceed to preliminary hearings, he said.

Rowe said his office has charged more than 100 misdemeanor domestic battery cases this year, and since Illinois’ shelter-in-place order took effect, they receive multiple domestic battery case reports every day.

“Do we see an uptick? It appears so, but domestic violence is a serious issue no matter how many or how few cases we see,” Rowe said. “Every case is one too many.”

He said his office continues to prioritize the charging and prosecution of domestic battery and sexual assault cases and will continue to obtain warrants for felony offenders. {/span}

{p dir=”ltr”}{span}“This does place extra work on all offices within the criminal justice system and especially upon law enforcement officers at a time when we can least afford it, but it is just one adjustment {/span}we’ve made as we weather this storm,” Rowe said.

{p dir=”ltr”}{span}Rowe added that he strongly encourages anyone in an abusive relationship to call the Harbor House hotline at 815-932-5800.{/span}

{p dir=”ltr”}“Many of us dislike being confined to our homes out of sheer inconvenience, but for far too many, being confined in a home with their abuser could be deadly,” he said.

Shoenwetter said parts of the world have begun to see increased reports of domestic violence since the start of the pandemic.

Increased isolation due to stay-at-home orders, social distancing practices and work-from-home directives can have a direct correlation, she said.

Exploiting the crisis

While many factors play into domestic violence, crises sometimes serve as a catalyst for more or worsened abuse because abusers mine the situation for tactics to assert power and control.

For example, an abuser could convince a victim not to call police or paramedics because they are busy helping people with coronavirus, or that they themselves are infected and would be endangering others by leaving home.

“The misinformation they’re hearing, when you hear that every day and that maybe is your primary source of information, then that causes even more barriers to somebody who maybe would have otherwise left,” Shoenwetter said.

Additionally, the current pandemic decreases a person’s options for leaving. Those living in areas where public transportation is being limited may find they are unable to escape abuse at home.

“Sometimes you just need to escape for a couple of hours, but thinking right now and in other tragedies, there’s not that option,” Shoenwetter said. “So it’s an increased intensity of what the abuse could be.”

Financial stress also plays a role in limiting someone’s options to escape abuse.

“A lot of people are losing their jobs right now,” Shoenwetter said. “If you’re ready to leave, where are you going to go if you don’t have any income?”

Get help

Shoenwetter stressed that survivors are not alone and that help is available. Her primary advice is that “it boils down to safety.”

Telling someone what is going on, finding a safe place within the home and starting to think of a safety plan are all proactive steps.

A safety plan can include hiding a bag with clothes and medications at a neighbor’s house in case fleeing becomes necessary or creating a code word with children that they should call 911 when they hear.

Harbor House operates a 24-hour hotline connecting people with information and resources at 815-932-5800, as well as an emergency shelter. Despite shifting counseling services to phone and video formats for the time being, Harbor House is still staffed 24/7, Shoenwetter said.

Another advisable step, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, would be to fact check information that an abuser might be using for manipulation.

“If you’re hearing something from just one source, fact check it,” Shoenwetter said. “If your abuser is telling you what you suspect isn’t true about the virus, go to CDC’s website; find out other ways of gathering information.”

For friends and family of someone in an abusive or unhealthy relationship, Shoenwetter said it is important to offer support without judgement.

“Reach out to your friend and don’t let that relationship blow away in the wind during this time,” she said. “Stay connected in all the different ways you can, whether that’s texting, calling or social media.”

Need help?

Harbor House operates a 24-hour hotline connecting people with information and resources at 815-932-5800, as well as an emergency shelter. 

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