Things were bad for domestic violence survivors in San Antonio before the COVID-19 pandemic, but people are in more dire situations now. They’re stuck at home with their abusers, and they also face the stressors of financial insecurity and the fear of catching a potentially deadly virus.
The San Antonio Police Department reported a 21 percent increase in calls for family violence cases in the first 23 days of March, which falls in line with an increase in reported domestic violence around the world. Advocates say that increase is surely not the entire scope of the problem.
“My biggest fear right now is that the victims are trapped in their homes with the perpetrator," said Marta Pelaez, president and CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services. "So once this COVID-19 circumstance is over, I think we’re going to be inundated with the cases of victims who could not resolve their issues because there were these limitations in place.”
She said the local crisis hotline and the Battered Women and Children’s Shelter has seen fewer people reaching out for help since the pandemic started, despite the increase in calls for police.
The decrease in calls in the midst of a global pandemic, she said, clearly shows that people have less access to make potentially life-saving phone calls when they’re stuck in close quarters together.
“This is something very, very strange and ominous, I have to say,” she admitted.
Patricia Castillo, executive director and co-founder of the P.E.A.C.E Initiative, has tried to improve the lives of domestic violence survivors in San Antonio for almost four decades. Like Pelaez, she knows first-hand there are more people who need help during the pandemic.
“The decreases in people seeking shelter is, I think, something that we’re seeing nationally and probably internationally as well," she said. "And so people cannot leave, people cannot ... get out from under the power and the control of their perpetrators,” she said.
“But also, a lot of women are afraid to leave because of the pandemic and because of how dangerous the virus is. And they feel like they might be exposing their children to a contagion and so they’ve got to think about what’s the lesser of two ... bad situations.”
Staying in touch
Calls to the P.E.A.C.E. Initiative have remained about the same since before the start of the pandemic, but, Castillo said, the way services are being offered has had to change.
She and her team have switched to online video classes -- from best parenting practices to court ordered prevention lessons for perpetrators. They’ve also stayed in touch with the community through their cell phones. Castillo said she recently received a call from someone whose neighbor reached out for help with a domestic violence situation.
“She was being held hostage in her house with her three children, and she didn’t speak English, and her husband controlled all the cellphones and all of the internet," she recalled. "But he happened to be leaving town to go pick up somebody from another city, so she took it upon herself to run out of the house when he left and go seek help from her neighbor.”
She called the city’s crisis response team officers. They met the woman and had her and her children out of the home within an hour.
That’s the key to addressing domestic violence issues right now, Castillo said -- finding ways to check in with people at-risk while most are sheltering in place.
How to help in the coronavirus era
Marta Pelaez also has made adjustments to keep the women and children’s shelter safe. Residents are escorted to the cafeteria in groups of two or three families at a time. Temperatures and symptoms are logged every day. And the way women are accepted into the shelter has changed.
“As soon as she descends from the car, her temperature is taken," Pelaez explained. "It goes with a heavy heart when I say that because it is not a welcoming gesture. I know that.”
No one at the shelters has tested positive for the virus so far, and key services like legal assistance and therapy are being offered online with some limited contact.
But Pelaez says there’s more that can be done to help people in dire need of assistance during the pandemic. In Spain and France, anyone who needs help with a domestic violence situation can go to a pharmacy and use a codeword to ask for help.
“I have planned a call to chief of police," she said, "to discuss with him ways victims can identify themselves to certain places, like perhaps pharmacies … or to the grocery store. How can they safely and confidentially communicate themselves to those places?”
Last year the city allocated $1 million in an effort to reduce domestic violence. The money is for 16 more full-time police officers, educational campaigns and funding for third-party organizations.
The monetary commitment is part of an ambitious five-year plan the city released in October to take on the issue -- running the gamut from prevention and education to housing and job training.
But the health crisis brought on by COVID-19 has derailed some of the first-year goals.
“That aspect of the work has slowed down," Castillo said. "Everybody agreed to just put things on hold for now so we can focus on dealing with the situation at hand, but domestic violence continues.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said during a press conference last week the city is still committed to prioritizing the domestic violence issue in Bexar County, despite the demands of the current pandemic.
“So there is no circumstance where the need for domestic violence services is going to be reduced in a crisis," he said, "so we’re going to figure out a way to make sure that those services are intact. We have to because there’s such a level and a need out there that we can anticipate.”
But finding the resources may be hard. The city will likely take a major financial hit from lost revenues because of the pandemic.
Joey Palacios contributed to this report.
TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.