Gov. Tom Wolf has issued stay-at-home orders across Pennsylvania as the coronavirus spreads. The directives are meant to save lives, but for victims of domestic violence, being stuck at home with their abusers can be extremely dangerous.
‘Survivors would call us when the abuser left’
Michelle Gibb runs the Alle-Kiski Area Hope Center, a shelter that serves victims of domestic violence in southwestern Pennsylvania. When Wolf first ordered Allegheny County residents to stay home, Gibb expected to see a lot more calls to the shelter hotline. She knew that victims would be under the same roof all day with their abusers.
Instead, the phones rang less.
“Which is one of those slap-your-forehead things,” she said. “Because of course they're decreasing, because survivors would call us when the abuser left, or they would call us when they were at work.”
Because victims don’t have the privacy to call and ask for help, western Pennsylvania organizations like the Hope Center have been trying to push other lines of communication, including text, email, and Facebook Messenger. But those alternatives canpresent another set of challenges. If someone calls a hotline, Gibb said, they can just delete the number from their call history, “But depending on what types of media they contact us through, then we have to figure out all of the ways to delete that contact."
So if it’s an email, make sure to delete it from your sent folder and then delete it from your deleted folder. Or if you try to get help via social media, try to check to see if you’re being tracked.
But there are other lifelines too. Gibb said if you have a friend or family member who is experiencing domestic violence who you talk to regularly, come up with a code word.
“A totally innocuous code word that if the person needs an intervention beyond checking in, that you can call 911. Like, say ‘birthday cake’ if you need me to call 911,” she said.
More 911 Calls
As the state began shutting down, 911 calls went up. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, for one, said calls related to domestic violence rose 20 percent once the stay-at-home order was in place. There was also a 30 percent jump in verbal domestic calls (arguments that haven’t escalated to physical violence yet).
A spokesperson for the police department noted that officers are responding to domestic-violence calls “immediately and in person” -- even as police are trying to handle many other calls through a telephone reporting unit to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.
“When there are situations when [victims] are fearful for their lives, they're calling 911 thankfully still,” said Nicole Molinaro, president and CEO of the Women’s Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. Her shelter saw a big drop in calls too: She said that could be in part because as the shutdown closed so many businesses that people weren't sure if shelters would be operating. But the state has deemed them to be essential businesses, ensuring they will remain open. Molinaro has seen a slow uptick in calls since then.
“We just had one of our residents say how relieved she was that she and her children were in our shelter during this time,” Molinaro said. “She can't even imagine the violence that she'd be experiencing if they were at home with their abuser right now.”
Social Distancing At A Shelter
But if and when a survivor does get out of an abusive situation, the coronavirus creates another obstacle: How do you social distance at a shelter?
“Some folks have reservations about entering shelter right now, because of the fear of being exposed to someone who may have been exposed to the virus,” Gibb said.
Both Gibb and Molinaro said their facilities are being vigilantly cleaned and high-touch areas are being sanitized. The Women’s Shelter has common areas that are big enough to social distance in. Molinaro said shelters in the region are taking steps like these to ensure help will continue to be available for anyone who needs it.
“The people who were vulnerable to begin with with this pandemic, they might have been teetering on the edge to begin with and now have gone over the edge,” she said. “We really need to be that safety net now more than ever that can help vulnerable populations.”
Courts Prioritize Protection From Abuse Orders
And while many routine court proceedings have been suspended due to the pandemic, protection from abuse orders (PFAs) are still being granted in Pennsylvania.
In Allegheny County, victims who want to file a petition for a PFA need to go the Pittsburgh Municipal Court building between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. The process should take one or two hours, said Lindsay Taiani, director of domestic violence services at the Hope Center.
While victims do need to file paperwork in person, most of the filing process will be done remotely. Attorneys will call victims to finish the PFA petition, and victims will video conference with a judge.
A temporary PFA ordinarily lasts about two weeks, until a court date is set. But Taiani says that during the pandemic, temporary orders will last until courts start operating normally.
“So your order is good until the courts open back up and a final hearing is scheduled,” Taiani said.
Victims of domestic violence who need help can call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline and automatically be connected to a local center. The number is 1-800-799-7233.