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How to Support Victims of Family Violence during COVID-19

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — May 5, 2020 — 4 min read
Sheltering in place may not be fun, but it gives many of us a chance to spend more time with the people we love. It might even make our relationships stronger. But for people living with family violence, staying at home with an abusive family member can make their situation scarier.
A lot of people are feeling extra stress right now. That’s especially true if they’ve lost a job, worry about running out of food or are concerned about getting sick. Facing those situations AND being in close quarters together can increase the chance of physical or emotional harm, financial abuse or other kinds of violence.
“When there’s already a domestic violence pattern of behavior, it’s magnified when you add on extra layers like losing a job, or other social risk factors that may have increased,” says Gerard Littlejohn, Executive Director of the Steve Smith Family Foundation. “We’re seeing that, plus we’re also being asked to shelter in place. I think it plays into why there’s been an uptick (in domestic violence).”
In fact, domestic violence has been on the rise all around the world this year. The rise is due partly to shelter-in-place restrictions.

What is family violence?

We usually think of physical abuse when we hear words like “violence” or “abuse.” But family violence can occur any time one person harms another either physically or emotionally. Typically, abusers seek to control their victims. They may isolate someone from family and friends. They may withhold necessary items, like money or hand sanitizer or soap. They may keep someone from getting medical help. 
This kind of violence can happen to anyone – any gender, age, race, or socioeconomic situation. “In our clinic, more than half of our patients are children, some of whom that have dealt with trauma or being abused themselves,” says Littlejohn. That’s something he understands, since both he and founder Steve Smith have both dealt with family violence as children. Now, they’re helping others.

How to help

During this time of physical distancing, isolation makes it easier for family violence to happen and go unnoticed. But if you are worried for someone, there are still ways you can connect and support them. Here are a few tips:
Just listen. You may not be able to talk in person, but you can try to call, text or video chat. You can’t always fix what’s going on, but you can always offer support. “In many cases, the best course of action is just to listen and empathize. Not rushing to judgement is important,” says Littlejohn. There are lots of reasons people remain in abusive situations. It’s not always easy for them to leave. 

Shared experience is helpful, too, if you have it. “If you’re lending an ear and can truly empathize because you’ve been there and get it, that’s tremendously powerful.” But remember that every situation is different. What might work for one person may be totally wrong for another. That’s especially true in abuse situations, where the abuser may be very unpredictable.

Act on emergencies. If someone is injured or facing another health emergency, then it’s important to act. If someone is in immediate danger, call 911. Get them to a doctor or counselor as soon as you can. If children are involved, you may need to reach out to your local Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). 

Provide resources. Useful information may include hotlines, community resources, hospitals or first responders. Let them know, for example, that in many communities you can request a police officer with Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training when you call 911. These officers are specially trained to handle family violence and other such situations. Organizations like the Steve Smith Family Foundation now are offering counseling services over video apps or the phone. There are other resources, too: Help them figure out a safety plan. For example, help them decide where to go or hide when needed. Select a “safe word” they can use when talking to you to let you know they’re having an emergency. Or help them prepare to get out of the abusive relationship when they can. 

Your friend or loved one may not take you up on help today or tomorrow. It’s important to let them know your door is always open. When they’re ready, they’ll know they can reach out to you.
Littlejohn notes that the effects of family violence are long lasting. But restoring someone who has experienced family violence can have even greater positive impacts for generations into the future.

About the Author:
Danielle Woodall, Community Engagement Specialist at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare
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