‘Our biggest fear is what we don’t know’

Safer-at-Home not necessarily true for victims of child abuse and domestic violence

U.S. Air Force photo illustration of purple words: Domestic Violence Awareness with shadowed face
U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Senior Airman Aubrey White/Released)

As most Wisconsin residents retreat into their homes following a “safer-at-home” order from Gov. Tony Evers to fight the spread of COVID-19, county human services workers and domestic violence victims’ advocates are concerned about the wellbeing of their vulnerable clients. 

With kids home from school and many adults home from work, there are more opportunities for abuse to occur, but also fewer opportunities for that abuse to be reported. If a child isn’t in a classroom, a teacher or counselor can’t report a suspicious bruise. If an abuser isn’t going to work, their victim may find it difficult to safely make a call for help. 

“We feel that’s because kids are not out and about. People aren’t seeing kids to make reports,” says Dawn Buchholz, director of Juneau County Human Services. “What feels different about this is even from the summer time or in breaks, kids aren’t seeing other extended family or out in the community doing things. 

She added: “One of our big concerns for children, families and vulnerable adults is the isolation factor. Our biggest fear is what we don’t know.”

A pandemic forcing people to stay home is about the worst thing for a victim, according to Carmen Pitre, president and CEO of Sojourner Family Peace Center. Many contributing factors to abuse are being compounded by coronavirus — especially isolation.

“Violence happens because victims are isolated in normal times,” Pitre says. “We’re in a reality now where we have to isolate ourselves in order to stay healthy. It’s a concern for people in violent relationships.”

But isolation isn’t the only contributing factor: economic instability, job loss, stress and anxiety can all make abuse worse, according to Pitre. 

“Everybody’s anxious and stressed right now,” she said. “If you’re an abuser, you don’t have coping skills, the violence can spike and go up.” 

For almost every aspect of society, it’s unclear in these early days of the pandemic how it will affect the way people live. For victims of abuse, it’s no different, Pitre says.

“We served 11,884 clients last year, almost all are at or below poverty, they have very vulnerable lives — food insecure, income not that stable,” she says. “This kind of epidemic is going to make things much more difficult for them and in the long run, I worry about how this will also keep people in situations that are violent. It’s a big hit across the board both immediately and the long term because everything that matters to our clients getting out [of a violent relationship] is going to be harder.”

And as the whole world adjusts to holding meetings by video or phone, working remotely and avoiding personal contact, so is the world of social work. In Juneau County, that means communicating with families by phone call, text or email. 

For Sojourner, it means adjusting shelter policies and attending injunction hearings for restraining orders by phone. 

At New Beginnings APFV, a domestic violence victim support organization covering Walworth and Jefferson Counties, it means sending out as much information as possible while still meeting with clients by appointment. 

All of these services will still be provided because they’ve been deemed “essential,” in Gov. Evers’ executive orders. 

“The message we want to get out is there’s help still available,” Pitre says. “We’re still taking people into our shelter. Restraining orders are still available. If you’re in a dangerous situation, call law enforcement, we’re here to help. It feels like a contradictory message, but it’s important people in violent relationships know there’s help available to them.”

For counties, there are some parts of the job that can’t be done remotely. If a report of child abuse or neglect is made, the department is statutorily required to respond in-person within a certain amount of time

But while there are some occasions in which case workers have to run out the door with law enforcement to intervene, Buchholz says Juneau County is making sure it can provide as many services as possible through the crisis. A county psychiatrist is still available by appointment, telehealth is being set up and staff is still available.

“[We need to] provide as many services as we can, especially through the pandemic because this is when people need the safety net more than ever,” she says. 

As officials and support groups take the crisis one day at a time, the full scope of the impacts won’t be fully known for a long time. 

“I really wonder what we’re going to see after, when kids go back to school,” Buchholz says. “What are the effects we might not know for months.”

Child abuse and neglect can be reported to your county human services department or law enforcement. Domestic violence can be reported to local organizations around the state.