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Tucson advocates worry coronavirus isolation could lead to rise in domestic abuse

Tucson advocates worry coronavirus isolation could lead to rise in domestic abuse

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series

Ed Mercurio-Sakwa, shown here at a press conference in 2017, said the Emerge Center Agains Domestic Abuse hotline has seen an uptick in calls in the last few weeks. He worries stay at home orders to reduce the spread of coronavirus can result in increased abuse for domestic violence victims.

Staying home might help reduce the spread of coronavirus, but some domestic abuse advocates say it also could lead to a rise in domestic abuse and violence that would more likely go unseen and unreported.

The hotline at Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse has already seen an uptick in calls, just days into local and state emergency orders that are keeping more people home, said Ed Mercurio-Sakwa, the organization’s CEO.

While it’s too early to connect the increase in calls to the coronavirus pandemic, Mercurio-Sakwa said financial struggles can lead to an increased risk for violence in an already abusive relationship.

Advocates also worry they’ll see less reports of abuse because a victim stuck at home with their abuser will have a harder time reporting it to authorities.

Tucson police officers and Pima County sheriff’s deputies respond to about 15,000 domestic violence-related calls each year, officials said during a news conference last year on the topic. Between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019, about 6,000 victims sought services through Emerge.

Isolation is already a tactic often used by abusers to separate a victim from their support system, Mercurio-Sakwa said.

“When we as a society are telling everybody to social distance, to self-isolate, while that makes a lot of sense from a public health perspective related to the virus, it is actually the worst thing for many domestic violence victims who are now further cut off, further isolated from support systems that might be their outlet or their form of respite from the abuse,” he said.

The concern among advocates stems from studies that have shown a correlation between unemployment and economic hardship and abusive behavior.

The studies have focused on the years leading up to, and including the Great Recession in the mid- to late-2000’s, as well as earlier studies examining marriages around the 1980’s farm crisis and the Great Depression.

The financial collapse already being seen across the country as a fallout from the spread of coronavirus could be deadly in more ways than catching the disease, says Jill Theresa Messing, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work in Phoenix.

“We see unemployment as a risk factor for intimate partner homicide,” Messing said. “So it could be that people who are already in dangerous situations, those situations are escalating.”

Messing, who is also the director of the Office of Gender-Based Violence at ASU, focuses her research on the escalation between domestic violence and intimate partner homicide and studies ways to intervene in cases before someone gets killed.

Mercurio-Sakwa said he also is concerned there could be a rise in domestic violence homicide, as abusers have less to lose if they’re already out of work and no longer have outside social interactions that might have helped keep them in check.

“I think that it may require some additional creativity on people’s parts to be able to find an opportunity to be able to reach out for help,” Mercurio-Sakwa said, “but we want to make sure that they know that help still exists.”

The hotline at Emerge is still staffed, its shelter is still open and, non-shelter services continue — though they’re now operating online and by phone.

Maintaining relationships and communicating outside the home is important during this period of social distancing. And people who knew a friend or family member who might be in a potentially abusive relationship should reach out to prevent isolation, officials say.

Still, it’s unlikely stress will lead someone to become abusive if they were never abusive before, Mercurio-Sakwa said.

“Usually it’s not that stressors cause domestic violence,” he said. “It’s that there’s already a willingness or belief that it is OK to control another person and then the conditions may impact the tactics used.”

In January, the state launched a new website, the Arizona Protective Order Initiation and Notification Tool, or AZPOINT, where victims can start an order of protection process online. With courts limiting in-person services, victims can now complete a protection order by phone in most cases, said Krisanne LoGalbo, spokeswoman for Pima County Superior Court.

Similarly, child abuse victim advocates say they worry that with school closures, mandatory reporters — like teachers, counselors and school administrators — won’t know if a child is being abused at home.

“There are children in our community who are not safe at home, and that’s true for them anytime they’re not in school, but it’s intensified right now,” said Marie Fordney, executive director of Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center.

During summer breaks, there are programs and public places like child care centers, public pools, libraries or parks, where children can go and an adult can potentially recognize signs of abuse or neglect, Fordney said.

“Kids are just isolated right now and so they might be in a situation where they’re suffering and nobody even knows,” she said.

In 2019, between Jan. 1 and June 30, the Arizona Department of Child Safety child abuse hotline received 23,106 calls that resulted in a report to the agency.

Fordney said she suspects reports of child abuse will decrease during the pandemic, but will then surge once children are back in school and adults who have to report suspected abuse are back in their lives.

“We don’t like it when children come into the center because it means that they’ve been hurt or might have been hurt,” she said.

“But it’s worse when they don’t come into the center because then it means no one is noticing or they don’t have somebody safe that they can tell that something bad is happening to them.”

Fordney said all adults should be vigilant for potential signs of child abuse. Being a nosy neighbor, or paying attention to children’s behavior at a grocery store and reporting any concerns might help that child.

“We all need to all act as if we are mandated by law to report when we see something bad happening to a child because we might be the only ones who see it,” she said.

Eric Schindler, a psychologist and the president and CEO of Child and Family Resources, said while his organization was one of many that signed a letter asking Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to issue a stay-at-home order, he understands people’s concern for domestic abuse and child abuse victims.

Child and Family Resources continues to offer its counseling and other programs by phone and online.

He said families have been happy they can maintain their relationships with their counselors but he expects that enthusiasm to fade and stress will take its toll once people see they have to stay home longer than two to four weeks.

He also predicts abuse cases will rise after Ducey issued a stay-at-home order last week.

“Particularly in Arizona where we wasted so many weeks where we were in denial, now we’re going to be seeing a big explosion of (abuse) cases in April,” Schindler said.

Fordney said neighbors and friends should reach out and help each other before they see signs of abuse in a home. Providing support or a social connection for a parent could help prevent child abuse before it ever happens, she said.

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