Concerns rise as domestic violence reports increase amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Domestic violence is on the rise as shelter in place traps victims from getting free from abuse

With stay-at-home orders issued in Tennessee, unemployment skyrocketing and financial stress mounting, domestic violence victims may find themselves stuck with their abusers in increasingly tense situations amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Already in Chattanooga, there has been a 24% increase in domestic violence reports during March this year compared to last. Across Hamilton County, the increase has been 89%.

Experts warn the number of reports will only continue to rise the longer the crisis lasts.

“The longer a person who’s getting victimized is sheltering in place with the person who is abusing them, and they have no way out, all of the things that create that cycle of violence are going to trigger quicker,” said Regina McDevitt, chief operations officer for the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults.

“So you’re going to see the violence escalates; you’re going to see the intensity of the violence escalates, as well, I believe,” she said. “And I think that we’ll have more people getting hurt probably more so than in the general sense that we’ve seen in the past.”

It’s an unintended consequence of the efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, said Ruben Muriente, interim executive director at the Family Justice Center.

Courts have extended expiration dates for orders of protection, and local victim advocacy organizations continue to serve victims and families. But they’ve had to adjust the way they operate in order to abide by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Most are providing virtual case management, counseling and supervised visitations. The hotlines and office numbers are still being manned. And, while most organizations are limiting the number of people in their buildings, they are still open — many just by appointment.

Currently, the majority of cases being reported to the Family Justice Center are first-time callers, Muriente said.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the first time abuse has happened. In many cases, abuse has likely been going on since before the pandemic began, he said. People get used to a level of violence. So when they decide to make the call for help, the violence has often risen to a level that the victim fears for their life.

“People in unhealthy relationships kind of have their own compass in terms of ‘Is this getting more dangerous than I’m comfortable with?'” Muriente said. “There are many victims who remain in abusive relationships for many, many reasons.”

Now, though, it seems victims’ sense of what rises to a need to seek help “is heightened, if anything,” he said. “Being in an extended amount of time at home with somebody who is abusive, you are now less likely to be as tolerant as you would have in the past.”

In March 2020 compared to March 2019, domestic violence reports increased by nearly 24% in Chattanooga and 89% in Hamilton County. Child abuse reports decreased by about 21% in the city and 7% in the county when comparing those two months. 

The increase in calls is something police expected and have prepared for, Chattanooga Police Department Chief David Roddy told City Council members during their March 31 council meeting. And, while the department has encouraged officers to issue citations instead of arrests when possible, arrests for domestic violence are still being made without exception.

“It’s still required by [Tennessee law] that a primary aggressor, if identified, shall be arrested — that’s the language written into the law,” Roddy said. “An individual that is abusing or harming a loved one and [the officer is] able to prove that, that perpetrator will still be placed in custody and will still be taken to the Hamilton County Jail. That is not changing. We are not doing citations for that, we’re not turning a blind eye to that.”

For social workers, the biggest concern is that someone will die. Already last year, Chattanooga saw a spike in domestic violence-related killings.

“That’s always our worst-case-scenario type of thing,” Muriente said. “We try to do everything that we can to hopefully avoid that, but obviously that’s not necessarily in our control.”

“The more times you call, the more evidence there is against the other person,” Muriente said, adding that once an arrest is made, the aggressor is placed on a 12-hour hold in jail, which “would allow the victim to find a safe place to stay.”