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Staying Home During The Pandemic Is Dangerous For Domestic Violence Victims

People across the world, and here in Northeast Ohio, have been stuck in their homes for the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but for some who are suffering from domestic violence, what’s inside the house can be just as dangerous as what’s outside.

Deaths resulting from domestic violence incidents increased by 35 percent in Ohio from July 2019 through June 2020, according to the Ohio Domestic Violence Network.

This increase in violence, during the pandemic, has also led to record numbers of people seeking help from shelters across the state.

Some programs that help abuse victims report they’ve experienced triple the number of people needing services.

“History tells us that domestic violence goes up after disasters,” said Mary O’Doherty, the director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network.

The recent stark increase in domestic violence in Ohio is likely is due to the pandemic, O’Doherty said.

When Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine first shut everything down in March of 2020, to stop COVID-19 spread, there was initially a decrease in calls for help, because victims in some ways were trapped and couldn’t leave, said Terri Heckman, CEO of the Battered Women's Shelter and Rape Crisis Center of Summit and Medina Counties.

Leaving an abusive relationship is already difficult, but it was especially hard during a pandemic when all of the public health messages about the coronavirus were telling people to stay home, she said.

Heckman has heard stories from survivors about abusers using the virus to manipulate them into staying, saying their family would be at risk of getting sick if they leave.

“People will stay home as long as possible,” Heckman said. “They will put up with a tremendous amount of abuse before they make that final decision to leave.”

But as the pandemic continued, some found a way out.

The uptick in calls to shelters for help statewide is likely due to pent-up demand during the stay-at-home order, O’Doherty said.

“This is a tough time for everybody. We’re all having to deal with some pretty challenging circumstances,” she said.

Many families who are struggling with domestic abuse are also facing many other challenges such as mental health issues, disabilities, substance abuse issues.

'If you’re already dealing with a lot of challenges in life, and then a pandemic hits, it just makes sense that there could be an increase in violence inside the home,” O’Doherty said

Funding challenges for agencies that help victims

The coronavirus pandemic also started at a time when funding for domestic abuse programs on the national level was depleted.

Due to changes in funding for the federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), domestic violence shelters in Ohio and across the country have had less money to work with, Heckman said.

Her shelter lost about half a million dollars due to federal funding cuts in the last year.

“At the same time that many of our programs are seeing an increase in requests for services, their most important federal funding source is being cut significantly," Heckman said.

The funding decreases were unrelated to COVID-19 but combined with the increase in demand for services due to the pandemic, it was a perfect storm, she said.

“The last thing you want right now is for any nonprofit or these crisis agencies to get in fiscal trouble,” she said.

There is a new bill that just passed the U.S. House of Representatives, which would redirect money back to the Crime Victims Fund through VOCA. It passed the House 384-38 with bipartisan support, so Heckman is hopeful it will pass the Senate and become law. Without increased funding, Heckman said she's looking at budget cuts that could impact the quality of services that her Battered Women's Shelter offers.

Until more money comes from the federal government, there is some money from the state to hold them over, but Heckman said it's not enough. 

Heckman's organization received about $20,000 more dollars in the most recent state budget, but it doesn't offset the $500,000 in lost federal money. And costs have gone up in the pandemic because extra cleaning is required to keep shelter residents and staff safe from COVID-19. The turnover of staff in the shelters is also high because employees are worried about the virus.

Heckman is paying her staff extra so they don’t leave.

“What we’ve struggled with is this staff situation, of staff almost feeling like they’re working in danger, and to keep them, I’ve had to offer them some bonuses and some additional perks just to get them to come to work,” she said.

Twelve shelters in Ohio have used funding from the state to give their employees pandemic pay, according to the Ohio Domestic Violence Network.


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