In Appalachia, It’s Always Hard to Leave an Abusive Home. Then Came a Pandemic.

Apr 23, 2020

When the coronavirus pandemic reached Appalachian Ohio, the first thing My Sister’s Place, a domestic violence agency which serves three counties in the state, did was make room. 

The shelter for adults and children quickly found alternative housing for many families in need. Now the shelter has enough space so that every family who comes seeking refuge can have their own bedroom and bathroom, important for social distancing and for keeping safe during COVID-19. If people who come to the shelter show signs of coronavirus, but may not test positive or even be able to get a test, My Sister’s Place has the resources to provide hotel stays for safe isolation. 

The organization also received funding for what Executive Director Kelly Cooke calls “shelter diversion funds.” 

“If somebody is able to safely stay with another friend or family member but maybe resources are tight,” she said, “we can help support that friend or family member financially so that they can take someone in.”

Classified as essential services in many states, domestic violence shelters like My Sister’s Place are still open through the pandemic, and, as reported by The New York Times, “adapting as best they can while trying to keep pace with constantly changing virus regulations.”

Cooke believes the work they’re doing is becoming even more urgent. Tensions are running high for families across the region, with many people are out of work, children out of school, food and household items running short— and bills due. Social workers in an interview with ProPublica, expressed concerns that “skyrocketing unemployment will further stress households prone to violence.”

This increase is happening across the board, impacting children and adults, and across the nation, not just in Appalachia. But in this region, specific considerations and limitations make the already precarious experience of trying to escape abuse even more difficult. Add in the COVID-19 crisis, a time of both unprecedented stress and lack of access to services, and people in abusive situations in Appalachia may find it even harder to reach help.    

Barriers to Access

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner violence–which can include physical injury or battery, psychological intimidation, or other abuse–or sexual violence from an intimate partner. Two of the states with the highest rates of violence against women are in Appalachia: Tennessee and South Carolina. In West Virginia, a call comes into a domestic violence hotline every 9 minutes, as reported by NCADV.

But the reasons for family violence in Appalachia are complex. 

Gender norms may be more patriarchal in the mountains than in some places, positioning a male partner or father as the unquestionable authority, and treating abuse as a family matter. According to Sarah Webb, Associate Professor of Instruction in the social work program at Ohio University, “Culturally we tend to not want to get involved in ‘family business’ and the result can be higher incidences of violence.”

“That is not just here [in Appalachia] though,” Webb said. “On a national level we are still not talking about and addressing family violence in the way that it needs to be addressed to save lives and reduce injury.”

Geographically isolated, accessing services was often a greater hurdle for some Appalachian victims and survivors even pre-pandemic.

“People who have resources tend to not go to a shelter when they’re experiencing family violence,” Cooke said. “They have people in their life who can take them in, or they have resources to stay somewhere else.”

But Appalachia has more people with lower incomes, who may not have those resources, Cooke said. “When someone is coming here for shelter, they do have to find their own way here. And that can be a barrier.” 

Abuse often involves control, and one way abusers control victims is dictating who they can see, where they can go. Families might only have one working car, which the abuser may control. Lack of public transportation makes it hard to get around more rural parts of the region. 

The reduced movement of quarantine conditions, with many people unable to go to work or school or even to parks or playgrounds, not only limits how many people will see or communicate with those being abused, it cuts down on opportunities for victims to reach out.

Parents may be spending more time with children, abusers with victims, and opportunities for a break, in the form of childcare, visiting friends or family, even just exiting the house for an errand, have diminished or disappeared. 

Leaving home for help at this time also seems more fraught and potentially dangerous than ever, including for, as The New York Times mentioned, “collateral victims of the virus who perhaps few have pondered, like the victims of rape or sexual assault, who may stay away from overrun hospitals for fear of exposure.”

“We are assuming that— and this is really just an assumption— people are just trying to hold out,” Cooke said. “[It’s] not a great time to upend your life in any way. I’m guessing that people are feeling anxious about everything else going on and are just trying to hold on at home until it’s over.”

Add in the shelter in place orders happening throughout the country, which further restrict movement, and some victims may now be trapped with their abusers, unable even to call or reach out via email.   

In Colorado, calls to a state child abuse hotline decreased by more than 700 calls the first week schools closed for the pandemic, which worries experts, as it means children may not be getting help. In Appalachia, Cooke said: “Our hotline calls have significantly decreased. And from what I’ve heard, that’s happening at least in some other places in Ohio.”

“It also feels a little eerie. That’s the word that people keep using here at the shelter, because we don’t know what that means. Our hotline rings all day long. We receive about 4,500 calls a year, and all of a sudden the phone just stopped.”

To help address issues of communication exacerbated by the pandemic, My Sister’s Place, which has an emergency shelter, a 24/7 hotline, and also offers court advocacy and counseling, has established a new cell phone number people can text. “We’re trying to think about all of the avenues,” Cooke said.

Connecting with help can be especially difficult in remote areas like some of Appalachia, where many households still do not have reliable internet. “Sometimes people, even when they’re out of minutes or don’t have a data plan, they can still text,” Cooke said.

‘We Take Care of Each Other’

One of the groups most vulnerable to abuse, throughout the region and nation, is children. As Webb said, “Children in unsafe homes that [were] able to get the routine, safety, and basic necessities such as food that school provides, are not able to get those things right now and that makes them even more vulnerable.”

The Zero Child Project, in a pamphlet on “Responding to Child Abuse During a Pandemic” notes that while children may not be in front of teachers, principals, and coaches every day in school and activities, children “may still have contact with all of these mandated reporters through virtual activities,” advising authority figures to look out for changed behavior or drops in school performance, as these may be signs of abuse.

But these signs could be difficult to quantify, as many children may be exhibiting signs of trauma simply from the pandemic itself, or be struggling to complete work in the new and different format of online school. The Zero Abuse Project recommends teachers be aware of yelling in the background of virtual calls, and to check in frequently with parents, as a poor grade may not just be a result of stress, but also a trigger for abuse.

“I think we all probably know one [or more] people in our communities who are not safe at home, or who are living in some kind of other circumstance that makes them even more vulnerable right now,” Webb said, advising people to “check in with those folks and make sure they are okay. Call them, stop by [from a distance], or ask a neighbor to check-in.”

“In our region we take care of each other— it’s one of the many things that makes me so proud to have been born and raised here,” Webb said. “If we have the means and ability, it is more important now than ever to be going the extra mile to take care of our neighbors and communities.” 

It is often very difficult to leave abusive situations. Even under the very best of circumstances, leaving abuse or abusers is a task complicated by family, finances, geography, the emotional abuse and control abusers exert over victims, and more— but the circumstances many people are in now are unprecedented in their lifetimes.

“Really, I would just encourage everyone to think about folks around them and to check in with people,” Cooke said. “I think this is a scary time for people, and the silence we’re getting is super concerning.”

Webb echoed Cooke’s statements— and reminded people to check in with themselves too. “One other way people can help is to make sure they are taking care of their own mental and physical health…and if they need help in doing this, please reach out to someone and ask.”

100 Days in Appalachia is published by West Virginia University Reed College of Media Innovation Center in collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting and The Daily Yonder. For more on the project, follow along on FacebookTwitterInstagram.