COVID-19's impact on domestic violence: What happens during quarantine when home isn't safe?


As government officials across the country give states and counties stay-at-home orders with intent to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the safest place may not be home for all people. Staying home from school or work may keep people safe from an increased spread of the virus, but it may also be putting them in harm's way from an abusive partner or family member.

South Carolina isn't under an executive stay-at-home order, but Columbia was put under one starting Sunday. Columbia is the second city in South Carolina to issue a stay-at-home order after Charleston did so on Tuesday.

Community members worry for those who have or are experiencing domestic violence in these hard times.

"An abuser will use anything in their toolbox to exert their power and control, and COVID-19 is one of those tools," Crystal Justice told The Associated Press. Justice oversees development at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a 24/7 national hotline in the U.S.

For the past couple weeks, Sumter's YWCA of the Upper Lowlands, a domestic violence service providing help for people dealing with domestic abuse, has been preparing for the effect COVID-19 will bring to the community, according to the YWCA Executive Director Yolanda Wilson.

"We're still open. We're not turning anybody away," Wilson said. "We're trying to minimize contact and see how we can network resources without face-to-face contact."

From usually building relationships with victims face to face, the YWCA staff has to provide resources and help by email, phone and social media. Wilson said this has been working out, but it's not the same.

"With all my years of experience, we've had hurricanes and disasters, but usually people can gather together and support each other," Wilson said. "This is the first time where we had a situation where you really can't support each other because you can't connect face to face."

According to the Sumter Police Department's 2019 data, reported domestic violence in the city decreased by 72%. However, the Sumter County Sheriff's Office reported a slight increase in known domestic violence incidents, with 314 reports in 2018 and 331 reports in 2019.

With the decrease in the city, Wilson said this is partly because of the community reaction to domestic violence-related deaths that occurred in Sumter from previous years. However, she said she has seen an increase in victims and that victims often don't report their abuse to law enforcement.

"Over the past three years, the number of victims seen at the YWCA have continuously increased. The numbers more than doubled in 2019 from the same time in 2018," Wilson said. "Many of the victims we see do not report to law enforcement for many different reasons; this can be due to fear of retribution or distrust."

Wilson said a police report is not needed to access any of the YWCA's services, but she worries that more domestic violence will go unreported during this time of isolation.

According to the AP, concerns are high as officials worry about a spike in calls, but they also worry about a drop in calls, which could indicate that victims cannot find a safe way to reach out for help.

Since the pandemic began, the YWCA has even seen a decline in calls. Wilson said she thinks this is because victims feel trapped and are scared to call in their homes.

"We're not sure what's going to come. There could be a spike with everything that's going on now because people feel trapped and may not have resources. They might be making poor decisions, or perpetrators may use this as a way to take it out on a victim," Wilson said. "At some point, I think calls are going to be increasing."

Since all South Carolina public schools are closed through April 30, Wilson has seen a slight increase in domestic violence in families.

A main concern across the U.S. is that coronavirus tensions could trigger more abuse, but with kids out of school, more cases could go unreported or unnoticed, according to The Associated Press.

Kathy Morrison, a social worker and coordinator of intervention services at Sumter School District, has also seen a slight increase in domestic violence cases through families since the schools have temporarily closed.

"We have had a couple of cases. I just feel like as time goes on, we probably will be finding out about more," Morrison said. "What's going on in the home, the school district is only involved as much as it applies to academics and if we're aware of it. There's a boundary there for us where it's up to the family."

Still caring about the health and welfare of Sumter's students, Morrison said they're still applying the school's policies with students and families on the internet.

"Any notice that we would have that if a child was being abused or neglected, we are still mandated reporters," Morrison said.

Being a mandated reporter means she can get other agencies involved, like the Department of Social Services, law enforcement and children and family services.

Other fears include the inability to help everyone who needs it at a growing rate because of office closures and the disconnect produced by isolation. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, more than 11,300 requests for help from domestic violence victims went unmet in just one day in 2019 because of a lack of resources.

"We're trying to do as much as we can," Morrison said.

The YWCA has initiated an emergency plan and continues to offer its services, as advocates are now working remotely. The main office is temporarily closed, but Wilson said they are allowing two people in the office at a time for essential matters. The YWCA is continuing to work with other agencies to execute and create a long-term plan, as it is unknown how long the coronavirus will last.