By Kendra Sitton
“The quarantine has created a lot of problems…A safety plan is no longer available [for some victims].” – Dilkhwaz Ahmed, License to Freedom
May 26, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) — After weeks of stay-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, two local organizations supporting victims of domestic abuse are seeing a sharp rise in people seeking services for the first time.
Dilkhwaz Ahmed of License to Freedom, an organization that primarily serves refugee and immigrant victims of domestic abuse, said 80% of the calls she received in the last month were from people who had never interacted with the organization before.
“We have never been as busy as we have been during COVID-19,” Ahmed told East County Magazine. License to Freedom’s caseload has doubled since the start of the pandemic. She said her organization is filing a restraining order on behalf of at least one person almost every single day.
She noted that many of the issues are directly related to coronavirus. Abusers have used the uncertainty and changes in circumstances to seize power and control in the household. Ahmed said she had heard of many instances of financial abuse where people kept a stimulus checks or hid them from their partners.
“The quarantine has created a lot of problems,” Ahmed noted. She serves Middle Eastern communities that are typically very family-oriented. Domestic disputes were often arbitrated by extended family and abused partners could flee to extended family members. Now, many people have had their safety plans to get away from abusers disrupted because they do not want to spread the virus to elderly parents or family members.
“[Their] safety plan is no longer available,” Ahmed said. She has been speaking with a woman whose husband threatened to kill her. Ahmed offered to pay for her to stay in a hotel but the woman said she would rather die than put her kids in a situation where they could contract coronavirus. “Things are changing a lot during the pandemic,” she observed.
The Center for Community Solutions (CCS) has not received a spike in callers overall to its 24-hour hotline, but has found that many callers have never sought help from CCS before. In addition, many of the issues they are experiencing also relate directly to COVID-19.
“Some of the first-time callers are calling about their partners intentionally trying to expose them to COVID, refusing to wear a mask — taunting their partners that way,” explained CCS CEO Verna Griffin-Tabor. She views these tactics as a way for abusers to inflict fear and potentially put their partners at risk. Griffin-Tabor is also worried about other tactics, such as taking away insurance cards and documents that would prevent victims from seeking care.
At one point, CCS had no shelter capacity, but that has improved since landlords are still willing to meet with clients due in part to moratoriums on evictions for renters impacted by COVID-19. “We've been able to transition some of our folks into longer-term housing. Thank goodness for that,” Griffin-Tabor said.
Although the number of calls has remained steady, many callers need an unusual amount of resources.
“The need is just wider than it has been in the past — just everything, transportation, food diapers, shelter, everything,” Griffin-Tabor said.
Meanwhile, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department reports a slight rise in domestic calls for service, when an officer is called to the scene of a domestic dispute, during the pandemic. KPBS reported that the Sheriff’s Department experienced a roughly 3% increase in calls from March 1 through April 25 compared to a similar stretch of time in 2019. In numbers given to East County Magazine by the Sheriff’s Department, 1,290 domestic calls for service were made in March and 1,242 were made in April.
While the advocates interviewed by ECM have seen needs remain constant or rise among callers who reached out for help, there is worry that the actual rate of abuse is much higher. With abusive partners staying home more, victims may have less opportunities to call hotlines for help.
“I think people are not able to get as visible. When things are lightened up in terms of the shelter in place order, I anticipate that we are going to get more calls,” Griffin-Tabor concluded.
CCS operates a 24/7 free and confidential crisis hotline at (888) 385-4657.
East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the Facebook Journalism Project for its COVID-19 Relief Fund grant to support our local news reporting including impacts on vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more: #FacebookJournalismProject and https://www.facebook.com/fbjournalismproject/