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This story is part of TRACE (Toward Response and Community Equity), a year-long series that will track how and where the region’s government, philanthropic, civic and private sector is working toward a more just recovery.
Local officials are restricting residents to their houses for their own protection against COVID-19, but for many home is not a haven. Shelter-in-place restrictions is increasing incidents of domestic violence leading some to call it COVID’s “shadow pandemic.”
“One of the big things is domestic violence thrives in silence an isolation. We are very concerned for people quarantined and alone with an abusive partner,” explained Jeannine L. Lisitski, executive director and president of Women Against Abuse, a $14 million local nonprofit agency and one of the largest domestic violence service providers in the country.
“Since mid-March, we have seen increased rates of elder abuse in our community,” added Molly Hunt, a counselor on the aging advocacy nonprofit CARIE’s Providing Advocacy for Victimized Elderly (PAVE) Team. “With some services in the community closed or functioning remotely, older adults are experiencing increased rates of social isolation, which is a major risk factor for abuse.” PAVE provides support for elders, who have become the victim of a crime, navigate the criminal justice system.
Catastrophic events, like a pandemic, hurricane, or tsunami, are known triggers for domestic violence and the violence remains long after the initial danger has subsided. However, the causes of domestic violence usually stem from a plethora of issues including poverty, debt, unemployment, mental health illness and substance abuse.
Ironically, as the violence trends upwards, local domestic abuse advocates have seen calls to the hotline decrease.
Lisitski said that calls to the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline were down nearly 30% between the start of Philadelphia’s stay at home order in March through June. An alarming drop that she attributes to the difficulty victims, who are isolated and afraid, have in reaching out when sheltering with their abusers.
Julie Avalos, executive director of Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County (DAP) reported a similar drop in call volume. “…(it) has left us really concerned about the level of abuse that individuals are exposed to.” There was also a change in call quality, Lisitski said, as the hotline received more short, interrupted, and frantic calls with abrupt hang-ups.
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Domestic violence statistics are notoriously difficult to track.
Nationally, it’s estimated that 12 million people per year are victims of intimate partner violence (IPV), a form of domestic violence within a romantic relationship and includes physical and sexual violence, stalking and psychological aggression. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates one in 4 women and one in 10 men suffer some form of IPV each year and the U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that almost three-quarters of family violence occurs in or near the home of the victim.
There are other indicators that help show the scope of the domestic violence problem.
The most common call made to law enforcement are about domestic-related conflict. Over 100,000 such calls come into the Philadelphia Police Department annually. Another indicator is the more than 12,000 annual requests for Protection From Abuse orders that are in court system,
Also, last year 13,329 calls flooded the city’s domestic abuse hotline which is operated jointly by Women Against Abuse, Women in Transition, Congreso de Latinos Unidos, and Lutheran Settlement House. In addition, Women Against Abuse has the only shelter beds for survivors of domestic violence and are forced to turn away an average of nearly 9,000 requests for shelter each year because the 200 emergency safe haven beds are full.
In response to the escalating domestic violence amid the restrictions of the pandemic, Women Against Abuse has just announced the availability of a chat function on its website. Lisitski told Knowledge@Wharton in 2017 that they had been planning for years to roll out a chat app that would allow survivors to talk with counselors — the pandemic forced the project to be fast-tracked.
“Web Chat will make it easier to access the help you need discreetly,” she said. It is available daily from 12 Noon to 8 PM EST. It is accessible at womenagainstabuse.org
Lisitski was being interviewed by Knowledge@Wharton because that year Women Against Abuse won the Lippman prize for starting the Shared Safety Initiative, back in 2012, for its cross-agency approach to coordinating services of 70 agencies to victims of domestic violence. The Barry & Marie Lipman Family Prize recognizes organizations that are creating positive social impact. Women Against Abuse was awarded an unrestricted cash award of $250,000.
The goal of the Shared Safety Initiative is to intervene in a domestic abuse incident before it turns fatal.
In 2019, the PA Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (PCADV) reported 112 people in Pennsylvania died as a result of domestic violence and 1,600 had died in the past decade. When Mayor Jim Kenny announced the launch of the Shared Safety Initiative, he said, “Domestic violence is at the core of many of the health and social issues our city struggles with including homelessness, addiction and educational barriers.”
If you are in the Philadelphia region and experiencing intimate partner violence, call the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-866-723-3014. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233.-30-
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