LISTEN: Experts Say Fewer Abuse Calls Could Be Signs Of A Bigger Problem

May 7, 2020

One in four women and one in nine men experience intimate partner violence – which can include physical injury or battery, psychological intimidation, emotional abuse or sexual violence from an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The online publication 100 Days in Appalachia recently published a report about what the pandemic could mean for some Appalachians. Inside Appalachia host Jessica Lilly talked with the reporter, Alison Stine, to find out more.

***Editor's Note: The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Lilly: So what do you mean by, "in Appalachia, it's always hard to leave an abusive home"? How are things different here than other places when it comes to escaping abuse?

Stine:  Well, we have some factors about our region that may make us unique and also make some things difficult. We're more geographically isolated in parts of the region. Parts of our area are more remote and accessing services can be more difficult. There simply may not be as many services, they may be harder to get to. We have low rates of public transportation in many areas. So if you only have one car, it may be hard to get to help sometimes. We also have populations with lower incomes. One of the experts I talked to talked about how if people have resources, they tend not to go to a shelter, they tend to reach out more at home.

Lilly: And how is the pandemic making it harder for survivors of domestic abuse right now?

Stine:  Well, the pandemic basically means reduced movement across the board. You are not going to work, many people -- children -- are not going to school. People can't even leave the house for an errand or to get a break. So people may be living with their abusers and be unable to take time off or even have an excuse to leave. Communication is also more difficult because of the pandemic. People may not have internet access at home. And libraries are closed, so you can't access the internet there. People may be running out of data or minutes on their cell phone plan. Most of the avenues that people would use to access help are just a little bit more hectic right now.

Lilly: In your report, you mentioned that phone calls reporting abuse or neglect have basically stopped not just here in Appalachia, but also in other places across the country, like in Colorado. But this is actually a concern for social workers or other abuse prevention experts, right?

Stine: Absolutely. It really means that people aren't able to reach the phone to call out for help, or that people aren't in front of mandatory reporters, like teachers and coaches, or people who would see maybe signs of abuse happening and try to reach out for help. ... I talked about in the article, the first thing that My Sister's Place did when the pandemic hit this area is they started to make room. And it wasn't just that they knew they needed space between the beds, and they needed to give every family their own bathroom for social distancing and safety reasons. But it was also that they did expect an increase. They expected that tensions would be running higher. People would be spending more time with their abusers. And things might come to a head, people might need more help during this time than they would normally. And so they expected to have that flood of people coming. But the opposite has happened. People are less likely to be able to get out or even to feel comfortable or safe getting help. It's not a great time to leave your house period, right? Even if you can, you know, it's not the best time to go to a hospital, even if you're hurt or need that help. 

Lilly: It seems kind of hard to talk about, even as I say it out loud. My stomach kind of turns thinking about the needs and the people out there who can't get to the phone. But just in trying to see some kind of opportunity or hope, what are your thoughts about the [social] workers getting an opportunity ... to catch up on some of these  ... stacks and stacks of papers [that have been sitting] for a long time?

Stine:  You know, I think that is true. I have a friend here in Appalachian Ohio who's a social worker, and people aren't showing up for their appointments, their counseling appointments, and that concerns her. And so she's trying to reach out to them in different ways. So I think there's two opportunities here: One is that my social worker friend -- she's using this extra time, if you will, to catch up on those backlogs to check back in with people to maybe revisit some old circumstances that she never followed up on or the limited resources didn't allow her to. But I think another opportunity [in] this very stressful time is to maybe think about new ways to reach out and communicate. My Sister's Place, the domestic violence agency in Ohio, has set up a text line, because they realize that even if you don't have internet at home or you're almost out of minutes, or you have no data plan, sometimes you can still text. So people can reach out that way. A woman that I talked to who works in the social work department at Ohio University -- she's an associate professor there -- she talked about how this is really a time for us to check in with each other. This is really a time to call that friend you haven't talked to in a while, or knock on the house of that senior citizen and stand back on the porch, and just ask if people are okay, and really check in with each other. And we still do have opportunities for contact in the form of, you know, virtual calls and videos. And that's still a chance to check in on somebody and see how they're doing and just pay attention to what might be going on in their life, and how you might be able to be there for them.

Lilly: So for folks who might be listening who need help, the message is look for other ways to communicate. Rather than the traditional phone call or physically leaving, and for those of us who want to help, look for ways to pay attention to your neighbors -- and folks who we might know who live in these dangerous situations -- and be willing reach out and and help with that is what I think I'm hearing, right?

Stine:  Absolutely. And I think it's important to remember that domestic violence shelters are still open. They are classified as essential services, and they're still operating. And they have gone to great lengths to keep the facilities safe and available to people that need them. So they're still there for people.

Lilly: Thank you so much for your time and stay safe.

Stine: Thank you. You, as well.