Commentary: How to help a domestic abuse survivor during the Covid-19 crisis

By the Women’s Freedom Center

If you’ve been out to run essential errands, you’ve already felt the eerie absence of almost everyone else. Grocery stores, drugstores and drive-up restaurants provide not just necessities now, but also our few remaining live contacts outside the home.

Photo illustration by Anna Shvets from Pexels

They’re a welcome sight to anyone, but imagine how vital they might be for a survivor of domestic violence. After being shut in with, and perhaps hurt by an abuser, that quick errand might be her first chance to call for help now, or maybe her only chance at freedom.

Whenever we train new crisis advocates, the most challenging role-play scenarios we give them boil down to just that urgency: ‘OK, this caller only has a few safe minutes to talk — how do you respond?’ Now, we’re putting that question to our wider community.

During this unprecedented time, any of us could become a first responder of sorts, or an active bystander, by helping a survivor access a safe phone. This may be to call our hotline, or even call or text 911, if—and only if—they request that. We need to trust the survivor’s own instincts on what is actually a safe step for them to take. The survivor might be alone, but may also be shopping with the abuser, and unable to access help any other way.

While each situation is unique, as is each bystander’s ability to help, here are some scenarios we invite you think about:

1.Store Managers: Please consider having a safe phone available in a private back office, that you could wipe down before and after use. Some survivors either lack cell phones or their technology has been hacked by the abuser and can’t be used for safety planning. If you have questions about such a safety option, or don’t think it could work at your site, you’re welcome to call our office at 257-7364 to talk about other possibilities. We greatly appreciate your help, at what is already a tough time!

2.Concerned Shoppers: If a survivor isn’t alone, they may not even feel able to go find a manager. Instead, they may just quickly ask anyone in the aisles to call police (with a note, a whisper, anything). If you’re asked, please just nod a silent ‘yes,’ then step outside the store and give police whatever details you have. If possible, you could quietly alert the store manager too about police being on the way; the manager could help monitor the situation in the store. You could also call our hotline if you wish, and speak with an advocate about further options. It’s truly inspiring, the impact alert bystanders can have. At times, creative individuals and organizations have even found discreet ways to cause slight delays, and buy a survivor extra time to escape, or for police to arrive.

3.Caring Neighbors: Because we’re all home right now, you may be hearing more of the daily dynamic of an abusive relationship than you did before, plus you may notice escalation. Certainly if you ever see or hear that someone is in imminent physical danger, calling 911 is the fastest way to get help to the survivor, even if you’ve never spoken.

But the far more common questions we get year-round are when the caller suspects someone isn’t safe next door, but they don’t really know the person well. They’d like to reach out, but aren’t sure what’s helpful or safe. Again, because each situation varies, as does each bystander’s own comfort zone with intervening, please know you can call our hotline to talk through safe options: 254-6954.

4.Family & Friends: If you’re aware that a loved one has been experiencing domestic abuse, we know this is a worrying time for you. An advocate can talk with you about safety tips when communicating with your loved one, and how best to support them. Plus since we’re all checking in more with each other during this lock-down, that can give you a natural cover for ongoing calls or virtual chats. And please know that all our 24-hour crisis services are still available, if the survivor wants to reach out.

The Women’s Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham and Southern Windsor County working to end domestic and sexual violence.  To find out more about the Women’s Freedom Center click here.  You can reach an advocate on our 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954.
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