Domestic violence is not down in SC amid coronavirus, but calls to crisis centers are
From signs flashing over interstates to directives from health officials and government leaders, the message has been abundantly clear: Stay home to save lives. Limiting trips outside can reduce the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus that's prompted a deadly pandemic.
But for the thousands of South Carolinians facing domestic abuse every year, home is a dangerous place to be.
South Carolina has a rate of homicides connected to domestic violence that is more than 1½ times the national average, sixth-most in the nation, according to the state Domestic Violence Advisory Committee's 2018 report. And experts who work with the abused say they're horrified by the prospect of people increasingly staying home alongside abusive partners.
Nearly 2,000 calls, texts or messages are made to a national emergency domestic violence hotline daily, but calls to local crisis centers are down despite statistics that show law enforcement cases have remained steady in recent weeks.
Advocates say hotline calls have declined largely because survivors are stuck inside with their abusers and unable to get out cries for help.
And while fewer calls are coming in, several shelters and victim advocates have altered services amid pandemic fears. At least five shelters in the state have closed. Another shelter has changed its housing and has room for fewer clients.
Calls to support centers are down, but cases of domestic violence are not
Safe Harbor, the Upstate's most prominent domestic-violence survivor support center, has seen a significant decline in use of its crisis hotline. Julie Meredith, the director, said that doesn't mean there are fewer cases — but potentially quite the opposite.
"This is a dangerous time being told to stay home when home is not safe," Meredith said. "There’s already so many barriers to leaving an abusive situation. This compounds that more and in fact greatly heightens the obstacles that already existed."
Safe Harbor, which runs shelters in Greenville, Anderson and Oconee counties, saw a weekly average of 41 intakes, which are calls that lead to service, in January and 34 in February. Within the past two weeks, the center has only seen a weekly average of 11.
That's about a 75% drop.
What to know:Coronavirus in South Carolina
As a health precaution, not because of fewer calls, Safe Harbor stopped accepting new clients into its three shelters. And as of Wednesday, the organization moved its current clients out of the shelters and into hotels. Additional survivors seeking services from Safe Harbor are being aided with hotel rooms but on a more limited basis.
"We're trying to come up with plan as to how we can get people to a safe place, but we need to find more funding sources," Meredith told The Greenville News. "For our emergency shelter, unfortunately it's not very safe for people in the midst of coronavirus. We don’t have a way to really social distance or quarantine."
Sistercare in Columbia has closed its two shelters and is instead paying for individual hotel rooms for clients.
A shelter in Spartanburg run by SAFE Homes Rape Crisis Coalition has limited its space to only one family per room rather than more.
Domestic violence, itself, doesn't seem to have changed for Upstate law enforcement agencies as a result of COVID-19.
► The Greenville Police Department saw an average of 48 domestic violence calls per week since Jan. 1, and the past three weeks have seen an average of 46.
► The Anderson County Sheriff's Office saw an average of 31 domestic violence calls per week since Jan. 1, and the first three weeks of March also saw an average of 31.
► The Pickens County Sheriff's Office saw an average of about seven domestic violence calls per week since Jan. 1, and the first three weeks of March saw an average of eight.
National Domestic Violence Hotline leader says abusers use COVID-19
Unlike those of local centers, the National Domestic Violence Hotline's call, chat and text volumes have remained steady with an average of 1,800 to 2,000 per day, but references to COVID-19 from people faced with abuse are more frequent, said Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the nonprofit organization.
She said abusers are leveraging the virus to further isolate, coerce and incite fear for others in relationships.
"Because we expect that people are spending more time at home, possibly not leaving the home for work each day, for example, we know survivors are spending more time in closer proximity to their abusers," Ray-Jones said in an email to The Greenville News. "This is stressful for everyone but especially for survivors."
The national hotline expects contact numbers to surge when stay-home recommendations and shelter-in-place protocols are lifted.
"We are especially concerned that survivors will be unable to reach out for help due to their abusive partner monitoring the behaviors while they are in isolation," Ray-Jones said.
SAFE Homes, a nonprofit organization serving Spartanburg, Cherokee and Union counties, has also seen a drop in calls to its hotline, said director Jada Charley. She said she could not provide specific statistics on call volumes. She said survivors being closer to their abusers more frequently now isn't the only reason for the decline.
"Survivors of domestic violence are people, too. They're trying to get their kids' school work done and figure out how to buy toilet paper. They're having to figure out how to tele-work," Charley said. "It's the same stuff all of us are trying to figure out."
SAFE Homes has shifted to phone calls and online platforms for things like counseling, therapy and assisting with obtaining protection orders, Charley said.
Sistercare is paying for motel rooms for 23 women and children and sending them with groceries, gift cars and cab vouchers, said Nancy Barton, executive director of the nonprofit organization serving the Midlands.
"A lot of us don't have enough space in our shelters, so we're sharing bedrooms and sharing bathrooms. We don't have enough space to quarantine or place a family in a specific bedroom or bathroom," Barton said. "Let's flatten this curve of the pandemic. I'd feel irresponsible if I didn't close in any way."
Sistercare has also seen a significant drop in calls to its hotline, which typically see about 90 calls per month. Last week, the hotline received only about one call per day.
"It's unusually quiet," she said. "I’m thinking that there’s such potential for increased domestic violence or individuals just not seeking services right now. We can’t know why really since we’re not talking to those people."
The national domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-7233.
Daniel J. Gross is an investigative watchdog reporter focusing on public safety and law enforcement for The Greenville News. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @danieljgross.