Friendship Center braces for potential rise in domestic violence due to pandemic

Posted at 2:53 PM, Apr 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-10 20:46:44-04

As people around the world deal with impacts from COVID-19, many are also facing a terrible side effect: a rise in cases of domestic violence.

In Helena, the Friendship Center isn’t sure when they’ll notice a spike in the need for their services, but they’re preparing for an influx.

“We are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” said Jenny Eck, the shelter’s executive director.

One sign of what’s potentially to come — other countries are already seeing more cases of domestic violence and abuse. In France, data shows they’ve seen a 30 percent increase of reported cases of domestic violence. In Spain, the number of people calling hotlines for help has increased almost 20 percent. Eck said it might take time for the impacts to become fully apparent in Helena.

“We know that that wave is coming to us as well,” Eck said. “We're starting to hear from clients who are telling us things are heating up at home, that stress is increasing, that abuse is increasing. Another issue is, being able to find a safe place to go. Where someone normally might be able to go stay with friends or family, they may not have that option right now.”

According to Eck, calls to the 24-hour hotline aren’t “off the charts,” but hotline staff, who are working from home, are busy.

Staff at the shelter are taking steps to protect current clients. Many are working remotely, and they’re asking residents to limit trips outside. Grocery trips are much less frequent and often online, and meals are supplemented with donations from the community. If someone needed to stay at the shelter and came from out of the state, Eck said they would be required to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks.

“We’re doing everything we can to prevent infection,” Eck said. She wants to avoid becoming a "hot spot” for the virus, since there are multiple families living in one building.

Eck explained families at the shelter are dealing with the same stressors as people out of the shelter, and those factors are often compounded by communal living.

“You think about your own family, and how stressful it is, to have a kid home all day, and the stress of worrying about your future income, and how you’re going to get groceries,” Eck said. “You already have the trauma you’ve dealt with in your own life, and then you’re mixed with other people dealing with their own trauma."

And for families currently dealing with violence at home, the pandemic can serve as a pressure cooker.

“The biggest predictors for violence are isolation, stress, financial worry,” Eck said. "Those are huge contributing factors when we see spikes in violence. This pandemic hits every one of those.”

This time can also be difficult for people who have previously been victims of violence, sexual assault or stalking, according to Eck.

Even if they’re not currently experiencing any of those crimes, feelings of isolation and loss of control can bring up past trauma, and the Friendship Center has counseling available for those people.

You can call the 24-hour hotline at 406-442-6800.

While there are many unknowns, Eck and other shelter staff are working to make sure victims and survivors know there is help and support available to them.

“A lot of it comes down to us just being really good at communicating, and making sure they know we’re here for them,” Eck said.

“In six months, I hope we can say we did everything we needed to do to keep everyone healthy and protected, and that we met the increased need that's coming our way."