WASHINGTON — For victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, staying at home may be more dangerous than leaving it — even during a pandemic.
Indeed, reports of abuse are on the rise in many cities as COVID-19 continues to spread and people are confined to their homes, according to an NBC News investigation. And communities across the country are reporting increased demands on victim service providers, according to Minnesota DFL Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith.
The Minnesota senators are prodding Congress to tackle the domestic violence problems exacerbated by the pandemic.
Klobuchar led a bipartisan letter, signed by Smith and more than thee dozen other senators, urging Senate leaders to pass emergency aid to help states respond to incidents of violence, strengthen victim services and provide sexual assault services and housing assistance. They also want special assistance for tribal communities and to waive certain grant requirements so providers can more quickly meet survivors’ needs.
Victims of domestic violence, trapped
“At a time when people who experience domestic violence are at increased risk, and requests for sexual assault and domestic violence-related services have sharply increased, additional funding for these programs is critical,” Klobuchar, Smith and other senators wrote.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the usual advice to victims doesn’t always apply.
Safety advocates tell victims to leave the house, Klobuchar said in a recent call with reporters. “And the opposite message, for good public health reasons, is being conveyed right now.”
Colleen Schmitt, director of programs at Cornerstone Services, an organization working to reduce domestic and sexual violence, human trafficking and crime in Minnesota, said shelters are open in the state and providers are redesigning services to meet emergency needs.
But the pandemic has certainly intensified the problem, she said. “Even long after the main peak of the virus, this will leave many victims and survivors in dire straits.”
In addition to being forced to stay home with abusers, survivors may face additional stress due the loss of a job or reduced income. Abusers may withhold health supplies or important information or documents or prevent survivors from seeking medical attention. Survivors may fear going to hospitals, shelters or other places of support — like counseling centers and courthouses — and travel restrictions may prevent their escape.
“It’s not just the immediate crisis,” Schmitt said. “It’s the long-term impact. As dedicated service providers, we are going to be here at this time and throughout all that.”
At the same time, service providers are facing funding and staffing challenges and have seen an increased need for crisis intervention, shelter and legal assistance, the senators wrote.
Problems are heightened in rural areas and other underserved communities, and particularly on tribal lands, they noted. Survivors in rural communities face barriers such as isolation, lack of access to transportation and small program staff, Schmitt said.
To help address the issue, Klobuchar, Smith and other senators are asking for some $430 million in the next coronavirus relief package. If passed, the money would build on $45 million for domestic violence services and $2 million for the National Domestic Violence Hotline approved in last month’s coronavirus relief package.
Klobuchar and Smith also signed recent letters in support of domestic violence programs authorized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and urging the Trump administration to make sure organizations serving domestic violence victims and survivors have the flexibility and resources they need during the crisis.
Klobuchar is also pushing to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which funds programs and services that aim to prevent violence, support crime victims and change public attitudes about violence against women. The bill lapsed in early 2019.
“We know that we need to pass VAWA and get it reauthorized,” Klobuchar told reporters last month. “We’re going to keep working on this.”
DFL Rep. Betty McCollum of St. Paul echoed the call. “People experiencing domestic violence already face challenges, and shelter-in-place orders, which are extremely important to stop the spread of #COVID19, can make a bad situation worse,” she tweeted last week. “It’s time for the Senate to pass #VAWA4ALL and expand protections for survivors.”
The U.S. House voted last April to renew and expand the bill, in part by making it easier to keep guns away from stalkers or dating partners convicted of abuse or assault — a provision opposed by the National Rifle Association.
Five Minnesota lawmakers — four Democrats and GOP Rep. Pete Stauber — backed the bill, while three — two Republicans and DFL Rep. Collin Peterson — opposed it.
Senate Democrats sought to move forward with a Senate version of the bill last fall, but GOP Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, objected, calling it a “non-starter” on the Senate floor. Instead, she introduced her own version of the bill.
Neither bill has since advanced, though Congress has continued to appropriate funds for VAWA programs, which are administered by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole” is especially important now, in light of increased gun sales, said Julia Weber, implementation director at the Giffords Law Center. Research shows that the presence of a firearm increases the lethality of domestic violence incidents, she added.
“We’re hopeful,” she said, citing greater awareness about the threat of domestic violence amid the pandemic. “We’re continuing to push it as a priority.”