The COVID-19 pandemic may be presenting more obstacles for victims of domestic violence to get help.
Domestic violence prevention advocates across the state say they’re concerned families living together in close quarters during stressful times could lead to an increase in abuse and a drop in reports.
A report from the state ombudsman’s office this month found child abuse reports to the Department of Human Services fell from 5,033 in February to 4,209 in March, a drop of more than 16 percent. Many schools across the state closed in March.
“It's giving everybody a false sense of security,” said Amanda Goodman, the executive director of the Family and Children’s Council of Black Hawk County. “ They say, 'Child abuse cases, the reporting numbers are down.' No, that's just because these children have nowhere to report them to.”
Goodman said many people who make reports are school employees, and expects an “epidemic after a pandemic” when kids are allowed to return to classrooms. An increase in child abuse reports is common after summer break, she said.
Gov. Kim Reynolds announced earlier this month that school will remain closed for the remainder of the school year.
Goodman said teachers and neighbors can still be keeping an eye on kids.
“I've encouraged all the teachers and administrators to reach out to families once a week, not only talk to the parents, but ask the child and give them that safe place,” said Goodman.
Mary Ingham, the executive director of Crisis Intervention Services, agrees that people need to pay extra attention to the children in their community.
“I feel like the community really needs to keep an extra ear and an extra set of eyes out for children because they don't have that safety net of someone at school checking on them,” she said. “They don't have the freedom, oftentimes, to pick up the phone and call a friend for emotional support or call an agency like ours to report abuse.”
Ingham said her organization, which serves 15 counties in north central Iowa, has seen an increase in people in abusive homes asking for help, but the way they’re communicating has changed. She said more have been reaching out through email and text messages because they’re unable to get away from an abusive family member.
“Two months ago, most people could find a time that they could be alone, you know, when their partner is gone, or maybe they're running errands, and people just ... aren't moving like that anymore,” Ingham said.
With more people losing their jobs and working from home, Ingham said it’s adding stress to abusive relationships and means victims can’t get out of the house as often to get breaks from their abusers.
“People are reporting feeling more isolated than ever, and not really having those social supports that they've seen in the past,” she said.
Ben Brustkern, the executive director of Friends of the Family, an organization that provides shelter for domestic violence victims in 14 eastern Iowa counties, saw an uptick in calls in late March, but said they declined as more restrictions were put in place.
Most of the calls now are people who are desperate to get out of their homes, he said.
“My guess is there's an increase because people are around each other more,” Brustkern said. “And what we are going to see is people making decisions to reach out as the restrictions are lifted, and the virus kind of tends to wane, that we will see more people deciding to seek services.”
In order to prevent an outbreak at their shelters, Brustkern said they’ve had to limit the number of non-related people they allow at shelters, which are normally at capacity this time of year.
Instead, he said they’ve been putting people at local hotels and asking if it’s possible for them to stay with friends or family members.
Brustkern suspects the fear of the virus is keeping some people in abusive homes.
“In some ways, you have to choose if you're going to leave for shelter and potential communal living, do I want to expose myself to the virus?” he said.
Burstkern said people should check on their neighbors and do something if they suspect abuse -- whether that’s asking if or how they need help or, if they’re uncomfortable approaching someone, phoning authorities.
“What I would say is don't just stand by and allow something to happen. Be an active bystander in some way,” he said.
Iowa Victim Service Call Center: 1-800-770-1650 or text “IOWAHELP” to 20121
Iowa Department of Human Services Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-362-2178