Local reports of child and domestic abuse during COVID lockdown mirror wider trends

By Julie Hagy, contributor

For people whose homes aren’t safe places, COVID-19 and the subsequent stay-at-home orders represent a dangerous double bind: unsafe to leave, unsafe to stay. Over the past three months, local reports of domestic violence are on the rise. Meanwhile, child abuse or neglect reports have declined, leaving local responders bracing for a spike in cases that may have gone unnoticed during the spring.

The Harrisonburg Police Department saw a 72% increase in reports of domestic violence between March and May, when stay-at-home orders were in effect, in comparison to the same time period last year. In 2019, the department received 36 reports of domestic violence from March to May. This year, that number rose to 62.

That increase is especially notable given the city’s reduced population this spring, when many university students quarantined outside of the city.

“Victims are not necessarily always the ones calling us. With everyone being home, people hear things more. Neighbors hear things they might not otherwise hear,” said HPD Detective Aaron Dove.

Dove works directly with people experiencing domestic abuse, also known as intimate partner violence, through a grant funded by the Office of Violence against Women.

Police departments and nonprofits serving survivors both nationwide and around the world have seen similar increases during recent months of widespread quarantines. An April memo released by the United Nations Population Fund projects that global intimate partner violence could amount to an additional 15 million cases for every three-month period of lockdown.

“Tensions are high in terms of financial situations. Although this doesn’t cause domestic violence, when somebody uses violent means to express their stress and there are stressors outside of the house that they cannot control, the things they can control within the household are heightened,” said Manuela Vasquez, outreach coordinator for First Step, a Harrisonburg nonprofit serving survivors of domestic violence.

The organization offers a variety of services, including shelter, hotline, support groups and legal advocacy. Vasquez said that First Step has not yet seen an influx of individuals seeking shelter, which she attributes to the double safety bind presented by the pandemic.

This flyer has been distributed by the Collins Center to address suspected underreporting of child abuse during the COIV-

Reports of child abuse drop significantly

While reports of domestic violence have risen, another startling statistic being reported nationally is the reduction in reports of child abuse and neglect.

According to Beth Lawler, assistant director of Harrisonburg-Rockingham Social Services District, local child protection services has seen approximately a 49% decrease in reports of child abuse and neglect since stay-at-home orders went into effect earlier this year.

“In a normal year where kids complete the school year in normal fashion, and go home for summer, reporting is lower in the summer,” said Lawler. “When children return to school in the fall, CPS typically sees an increase in complaints.”

By that time, kids have formed connections with teachers, coaches, support professionals, and may report things that have happened or injuries they have sustained.

Lawler said child protective service agencies in the region are preparing for a potential spike in reports once kids return to brick-and-mortar schooling.

“It’ll have been 6 months instead of 10 or 12 weeks. You’re going to double that time period, and we don’t even know what schools are going to do for the fall,” Lawler said.

The Collins Center, a local nonprofit dedicated to supporting individuals affected by sexual violence, including children, has also seen significantly fewer child abuse cases since schools have moved to remote learning models and stay-at-home orders have been in effect.

 “The opportunities that children have to interact with counselors, teachers and  other professionals diminished with stay at home orders. Kids haven’t been around mandated reporters,” said Executive Director Maria Simonetti.

Like First Step and the social services department, The Collins Center is also preparing for a potential spike in reports.

“National experts and people in our field have projected that we may see more physical abuse due to the stress that people were under during stay at home orders. Children are most vulnerable when there are greater strains on households,” says Simonetti, citing financial and isolation stress, specifically.

Vasquez believes that the issues are interrelated.

“If  survivors are trying to get ahold of somebody who could help, but their abuser has cut them off from communication, they will not be able to report for their children or find additional resources,” she says. 

In the response to a suspected underreporting of child abuse during lockdown, The Collins Center has issued COVID-specific flyers to local schools and community partners. The flyers help identify potential signs of child abuse and neglect – things, Simonetti said, that are everyone’s responsibility to report.

Lawlor encouraged using technology to stay connected to children who may be in vulnerable situations.

“Stay in contact with them with the means you have. Video chat, call them. We have a lot of technology that assists us,” she said.

Vasquez likewise emphasized the importance of sustaining communication with survivors of domestic violence during this time.

“If you know of someone close to you that has been going through an abusive situation prior to the pandemic, it’s likely that it is continuing,” she said. “A really important tool someone can use is communication. If you know someone can communicate safely, check in with them.”

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