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Shelters struggle to combat domestic violence spike amid pandemic

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At a time when they need her the most, Teshezia George says she’s forced to shutter her shelter doors to women without a safe home.

“A lot of times I‘m getting off the phone feeling just terrible,“ she said, “because I know these people are going to sleep in their car again or in an abandoned house.” 

George is executive director of the 14-unit Rainbow-Ark Shelter in Gary, which is closed to clients during a much-needed renovation. Normally, the shelter invites women and children affected by homelessness, domestic violence or sexual assault to stay for about two months. 

Now, George is working solo, stocking shelves and taking calls. Social distancing measures have forced her staff to telecommute. 

“I think the staff stress level is at an all-time high,” she said. “Everybody‘s worried.”

What hasn’t slowed down are calls for support. The shelter’s crisis line has seen a 50% uptick over the past few months, George said.

In Indiana, domestic violence calls and deaths are on the rise — a trend advocates link to the coronavirus pandemic. The Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports an 86% increase in domestic violence-related deaths over the last few months. 

Overall in Indiana, an estimated 40% of women and 26% of men experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Whitney Guthrie leads a team of 12 bilingual advocates for Families First Indiana, which serves survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. 

She says the economic uncertainty of the pandemic adds stress to relationships where abuse is already occurring. At the same time, shelters may have cut back on available beds to meet social distancing requirements. 

“If the whole world feels unsafe and your own home is the most dangerous place that you have, you‘re stuck,“ she said. “What are your options? The need only increased, but the resources significantly decreased.” 

That’s why the Domestic Violence Network and Families First Indiana are partnering to provide free, extended-stay hotel rooms to those who are escaping a violent situation and need more space to quarantine. Families First is also providing virtual support groups for those who have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault or child abuse. 

Guthrie says clients housed at hotels are given a grocery stipend to nearby stores. They also have access to Wi-Fi for work and distance learning.

“[They need] to have that idea of being a safe location where my abusive partner doesn‘t know that location,” she said.

Guthrie said it’s important for people to understand just how hard it may be for a survivor to break free from an abusive relationship. She’s frustrated that some people say abuse victims “should just leave.”

“That is the least helpful thing that we can say, especially during COVID-19,” she says. “How am I going to leave if I can‘t go to my grandmother‘s house? I can‘t bring my children into that home and make her positively exposed to coronavirus, and I can‘t call people and say that I need help because my partner is always around.”

The problem can affect teenagers, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports Indiana ranks third-highest in the nation for the percentage of high school students who report sexual dating violence. 

To educate youth about dating violence, the Domestic Violence Network is partnering with Indianapolis Public Schools to launch a billboard and poster campaign this month.

The campaign puts resources on a half-dozen billboards near public high schools, on a dozen IndyGo bus ads and on posters to help students understand the signs of teen dating violence and where they can get help.

The need for social distancing has forced all advocates to get creative.

George is preparing to reopen the Rainbow-Ark Shelter at the beginning of 2021. But she’s not sure how the shelter can provide the needed intimacy while adhering to social distancing guidelines. 

“We provide a lot of hands-on communication with clients from the moment they walk in the door because sometimes they’re coming from a traumatic situation,” she said. “We sit with them for hours just to get them comfortable.”

She’s seeking donations to buy personal protective equipment for families who sometimes show up with nothing. 

“When they call, I am honest to let them know we are closed,” she said, “but I do not get off the phone until I try to find a resolution for them. It is [heartbreaking].”

This story was reported as part of a partnership between WFYI, Side Effects Public Media and the Indianapolis Recorder. Contact Hilary Powell at hpowell@wfyi.org. Follow her on Twitter @mshilary.

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