As Floridians stay home to avoid the spread of the coronavirus some worry about another potential threat—the increased risk of domestic violence.
For weeks, after the spread of the coronavirus began, Gov. Ron DeSantis resisted calls to implement a state-wide stay-at-home order. DeSantis worried about the impact the order would have on domestic violence and abuse across the state. He also worries about the mental health impact the stress related to coronavirus is having on all Floridians.
“I know a lot of people have been uneasy, have been very anxious. You’re in a situation where a lot of the things you used to do are no longer available to you,” DeSantis says. “You turn on the TV. There‘s no sports to watch there’s not a lot of live events. It’s kind of watch the news. A lot of people are watching this and it’s of course 24/7 about the coronavirus.”
DeSantis isn’t alone in his concerns. Officials says it’s known that when people are at home, their risk of abuse increases. Sara Walsh is the director of the domestic abuse program at Alpert Jewish Family Services in West Palm Beach.
“When there’s times of stress, this adds much more pressure on a family unit. So when you already have domestic abuse occurring a home—emotional, physical—all these pressures are going to add to the stress of the home. And it’s just going to add additional danger to the person who is being abused,” Walsh says.
Walsh says the closure of schools and businesses is adding to that danger. The state’s unemployment rate has jumped to 4.3% with more than 2-million layoffs in the past few weeks.
“One of the things that I know is that many children, women, and men who are being abused use work and school to escape their situations. It’s their safe haven. It’s not happening now,” Walsh says. “So if you can only imagine how frightened some of these victims are, in the home, with their abuser, 24/7.”
It’s hard to get a clear understanding of the impact coronavirus has had on driving abuse. In Palm Beach, domestic violence workers say calls to hotlines aren’t increasing, but they think that could be an indication people are too scared to call. A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Children and Families says calls to the child abuse hotline are also not rising, but that’s common during emergencies since often people outside the home—like teachers—are the ones who call to report abuse. Florida law requires any person who thinks a child is being abused or report it to the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-962-2873
Alexcia Cox works with the state attorney’s office in Palm Beach. She says the impacts may still be coming.
“I have heard that there are some days that there are sharp spikes in calls and other days there are lulls. So I can’t give you an exact number. But I have heard that first hand from a law enforcement officer. That some days dispatch is flooded with domestic violence calls and some days it’s back to normal. I think it ebbs and flows. But I do believe everyone is feeling that there is a ripple coming through the stay at home order there has been a ripple effect in domestic violence,” Cox says.
A delayed effect following a crisis is something Randy Nicklaus says he’s seen before. He’s President of 211 Big Bend, a call center that helps connect people with services ranging from food to getting mental health treatment.
“We see that all the time after events happen, the situations for a lot of people don’t improve right away. They get worse and they need more help and they have more anxiety, depression and they may act on that in not so positive ways. Right now we’re getting a lot of those calls about anxiety, but I think that may change into something more serious as time goes on,” Nicklaus says
Nicklaus says calls to 211 Big Bend in March increased by about 70% over the number of calls the organization received at the same time last year.
““We are constantly helping people with concerns about financial situations they’re struggling with. They may have lost their jobs. They may be worried about food. So we’re trying to help them with information about what in the community is available,” Nicklaus says.
Nicklaus says there have also been a lot of calls from people experiencing anxiety and there was an uptick in calls relating to suicide. 211 Big Bend also operates as a suicide hotline. But there haven’t been a lot of domestic violence calls yet.
“So we have seen the trend in that area and I suspect that other areas, like domestic violence, substance abuse, will increase as a result of what’s going on. Time will tell what we see on our hotline,” Nicklaus says.
Dialing 211 will connect callers to someone in their area who can direct them to any services they might need, or just provide a listening ear.
Victims of domestic violence can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to be connected with local domestic violence resources. If you are feeling suicidal, thinking about hurting yourself, or are concerned that someone you know may be in danger of hurting themself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or dial 911.