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Coronavirus In Ohio: Domestic Violence Shelters Expect Boom Of Crisis Calls

The new CHOICES domestic violence shelter which opened in January and can accomodate up to 120 people and currently has a waitlist of more than 40 people.
Paige Pfleger
The playroom inside Choices domestic violence shelter.

Sue Villilo directs LSS CHOICES For Victims Of Domestic Violence. At their shelter in Columbus, the phone lines have been less busy these past few weeks.

“We actually have a little bit of a dip in seeking services right now. I think to some extent that isn’t too surprising,” Villilo says. “It’s probably harder for people to contact us if they’re in the home with the abuser.”

A dip in calls is actually a sign that trouble could be on the horizon.

“One thing we’ve seen historically is anytime we experience a sort of a dip like this in the number of people seeking services, we will see a rebound in the near future following that dip,” Villilo says.

With Ohio's stay-at-home order extended to May 1, families are going to be spending more time together under the same roof. While that can be challenging even for families who get along, police and advocates for domestic violence survivors are wary about what lies ahead.

There are two ways CHOICES gets referrals: people call in themselves through a hotline, or police call in. While hotline calls are more erratic, police calls are on the rise.

“There’ve been weekends where we’ve seen 10 or 11 of those police-generated calls, when typically we see about five,” says Columbus Police Sergeant James Fuqua.

Fuqua says police aren’t responding to more domestic violence calls, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought more noticeable stress to households.

“We have noticed when we do go on these domestic-related calls for service, that most of them are tied to financial stresses because of COVID-19,” Fuqua says. “Many people have lost their jobs. Many people have lost their ability to have financial means to support their family.”

Columbus Police try to maintain social distancing when they respond to calls by having people step outside to chat with them. But Fuqua is clear that officers will take whatever action necessary to get the job done.

“If we have to find a primary physical aggressor, which the statute says, we will go hands-on and arrest people no differently,” Fuqua says.

"An Unstable Situation In Any Household"

Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein says there were 60 domestic violence arrestsin the last week of March, which is about average for the city. 

“When you backdrop that against the fact that we’ve had three domestic violence-related homicides in the past three weeks, you look at the fact of high economic anxiety, high COVID-19 anxiety, folks quarantined in their own houses, this is an unstable situation in any household,” Klein says.  

Those three homicides sounded alarms for Klein because there were only seven in all of 2019.

“We never want to think that a victim of domestic violence or their family has to wait out the COVID-19 crisis in their own home with an abuser,” Klein says. “You do not have to do that. There are resources that are open.”

According to Villilo, the reality is survivors may wait because they can’t grab a moment to safely make a call. CHOICES will be ready to help when they are able to reach out.

“So we’re getting prepared in our minds, there may be at some point this kind of reversal of the curve where we’ll see more people come in for help and services,” Villilo says.

Although Franklin County Court proceedings are limited due to COVID-19, the court remains open to hear emergency cases. That includes new and previously filed requests for emergency custody and civil protection order filings.

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, call 614-224-4663.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.