More victims, more severe cases, of domestic abuse during coronavirus lockdown

Photo Illustration by Travis Gauthier

“Not every home is a safe home,” warned Billi Lacombe, the executive director of Faith House, Lafayette’s domestic violence crisis center, at a Lafayette Consolidated Government press conference in early April. Coronavirus has strained Acadiana’s network of community services, including food pantries and shelters for people experiencing homelessness, but Lacombe is loudly signaling that Faith House is still able to help. 

Louisiana is the nation’s second most deadly state for women when it comes to domestic violence, and although the governor’s shelter-in-place directive was meant to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, Lacombe is concerned the order has had unintended consequences of making life even more dangerous for women in abusive relationships. 

Calls to Faith House’s confidential hotline have increased by 20% compared to this time last year. But law enforcement says it isn’t seeing a pronounced uptick in complaints, interim Lafayette Police Chief Scott Morgan said last week. 

Domestic violence is among the only arrests still booked into the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, which gives the appearance of an uptick. Local law enforcement isn’t booking misdemeanor arrests into the jail during the pandemic. “There is an increase in [domestic violence] arrests,” but it’s not as dramatic as the booking reports would make it seem, says Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Department spokesman John Mowell.

This disparity troubles Lacombe. Domestic violence is a highly under-reported crime even in times of relative normalcy, with survivors less likely to contact law enforcement due to fear of violent repercussions. Their fear is not unfounded; anywhere from 50-75% of domestic abuse homicides occur after the victim has managed to separate from their abusive partner.

In addition to increased calls, Faith House has been assisting more women than usual who arrive with serious injuries, according to Lacombe. “So it really concerns me when you have an offender so dangerous, that victims are not making that call [to law enforcement],” she says in a phone interview. 

The stay-home order may have reinforced the power and control batterers have over their victims by cutting them off from their normal support systems, Lacombe says, potentially exacerbating the victim’s isolation. Simple things like visiting a hairdresser or having coffee with a friend, she says, “builds some confidence within them, so that they can begin to strategize if they want to leave. When they don’t have that, it can feel like there’s no way out.”

According to the CDC, more than 500,000 women every year require medical treatment for injuries inflicted upon them by intimate partners. 

Unlike everyday disputes that may arise between folks in a relationship, domestic violence is characterized by the batterer’s use of various types of abuse to create pervasive fear in the name of establishing power and control over their partner. 

Marie Collins, the executive director at Family Tree, a nonprofit providing education and counseling on family issues, cautions that there’s an important distinction between one-off arguments and abuse. With whole families home in close quarters for increased lengths of time, she says, “there’s gonna be conflict. You’re gonna have squabbles, you’re gonna fight.” 

In these stressful situations, she recommends parents do what they can to manage their own mental health, especially if there are children around. “[Kids] experience the stress and the trauma that they see in their caretakers,” she says, advising parents who find themselves unable to quell their anxieties to reach out to a professional. Family Tree continues to provide virtual counseling services during the current pandemic, she adds, via teletherapy technology.

Abuse, however, goes beyond these understandable tensions. Rather than a passing moment of conflict, domestic abuse “becomes a continual situation where you’re fearful,” Collins says. “Maybe you change your behavior in order to not provoke, because you’re scared about what will happen if they get angry or upset.”

Abuse can be physical, sexual, psychological, and/or financial in nature. The endgame for the abuser is always power and control. For the abused, the threat of violence can mean choosing between the risk of injury if they stay and the risk of homelessness if they leave. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 80% of mothers with children experiencing homelessness had previously survived domestic violence.

Faith House was, in fact, originally founded in 1980 as a homeless shelter for women; in 1992 it transitioned exclusively into a battered women’s program. Now, the organization serves seven parishes throughout central and south Louisiana, offering a variety of resources to women facing domestic violence. The shelter, still open and available for survivors in immediate need of safe housing, includes 45 beds. Advocates can be reached on the phone 24/7 through Faith House’s confidential hotline at 1-888-411-1333. Once contacted, advocates can help survivors easily access law enforcement, legal services, counseling and other support services. Faith House advocates can also be reached for more information on the website’s Contact page

Lacombe also notes that survivors may still file protective orders through the Louisiana court system at this time, and that advocates with Faith House are available to assist. Also, as 2010 data from the CDC indicates that lesbians, bisexual women and bisexual men are at increased risk of intimate partner violence when compared to their heterosexual counterparts, Faith House offers resources for all survivors of domestic violence, no matter their gender or sexuality. 

Lacombe emphasizes that even in this difficult time of COVID-19, those who abuse are still responsible for their actions. “In society, people want to try to reason this behavior, to try to say that [batterers] are just stressed. But abusive behavior is a choice. It’s not caused by stress. Abusers abuse in the best of times.”

It is not often within a victim’s control, she says, to stop an abusive episode from happening. “So it’s about making sure that you can be as safe as possible when an incident occurs.” She advises those in danger to be aware of their surroundings, avoid entering rooms where weapons could be used against them, to try to hide their keys in a place they can easily grab them if they need to make a quick escape.

Lacombe also urges anyone who is frightened about their domestic situation to “sit and ground yourself, take deep breaths, practice any form of self-care that you possibly can. Know that this will pass. But most important, know that you’re not alone, no matter what the abuser tells you. Faith House is still working. We have advocates here. There’s help. You’re not alone.”