Editor’s note: This article references domestic violence and sexual assault.
In part due to the physical isolation needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn, the rate of domestic violence and sexual assault cases has sharply risen in Tompkins County.
According to The Advocacy Center — an organization that supports people impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault and rape — survivors face increased risks during the pandemic, including increased time in an unsafe home environment, need for childcare support from their partners and financial constraints.
“Domestic violence offenders use isolation as a tool to increase their power and control,” said Heather Campbell, executive director of The Advocacy Center.
From May 1 to 28, The Advocacy Center reported a 23 percent increase in calls to its hotline, according to Campbell. This sharp upturn was particularly significant given that thousands of college students had returned home well before May, she explained.
But the increase in domestic violence cases during COVID-19 is not unique to Tompkins County. New York state reported that domestic violence rates in March 2020 were 15 percent higher than in March 2019, and 30 percent higher in April 2020 than in April 2019.
Many survivors are also now unemployed, making them even more vulnerable to manipulation by past abusers, Campbell told The Sun.
“If someone were a survivor of domestic violence and lost their job or financial support, sometimes they feel that their only option is to move back in with or re-engage contact with someone who had been abusive to them,” she said.
The Advocacy Center’s website offers advice on how to safety plan during the pandemic, with advice suggesting identifying the safest room in a house, making an exit plan, seeking social support and packing an emergency bag of food, supplies and documents.
The Advocacy Center has had to reduce the capacity of its domestic violence shelter to comply with physical distancing regulations, but it still has remaining space.
“People are concerned about shared living at this time, so while we have had more calls about shelter, many have not resulted in people coming to our shelter,” Campbell said.
The Advocacy Center normally works with other agencies, including the Tompkins County Youth Services Department and The Learning Web, on prevention efforts to keep vulnerable populations safe, including at-risk young people. But that job has been complicated amid lockdown orders and soaring unemployment rates.
“Due to the economic stressors of our current situation, youth being at home — not being at school, not being connected to their normal adult support system — are at increased risk of being exploited,” said Bridgette Nugent, deputy director of the Tompkins County Youth Services Department.
Increased unemployment also puts financially insecure youth at higher risk of being exploited, according to Nugent.
“One of the ways we are supporting youth at this time is providing them the means to buy their basic necessities,” Nugent said of Youth Services’ work with partner agencies that provide direct support to youth. “Very often, exploiters will find youth who are lacking a home, phone, food, internet, and they will exploit those needs.”
The Learning Web, an organization that provides support to adolescents and young adults, is still providing case management services remotely, but is finding it more difficult to address domestic violence cases virtually.
“Because of the risk of infection, it is hard for us to go out there and put ourselves in the middle of situations when we are trying to mediate,” said Rick Alvord, director of operations for The Learning Web. “[When] working remotely we’ve had some success in defusing situations, but then a week later they keep occurring.”
Despite the challenges of a pandemic, The Learning Web continues to connect their clients with other resources, and in some cases, help find them safe shelter in either a domestic violence shelter or a hotel room.
These local agencies are fighting to support survivors who are now more at risk. On the state level, New York has introduced a new 24/7 text program and online service to help survivors, in addition to its pre-existing domestic violence hotline.
Members of the Cornell Community may consult with the Victim Advocate by calling 607-255-1212, and with Cornell Health by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. The Tompkins County-based Advocacy Center is available at 607.277.5000. For additional resources, visit health.cornell.edu/services/victim-advocacy.