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Local advocates worry as Bellingham domestic violence rates stagnate

The phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline is displayed under a purple house, which is the color of domestic violence awareness. // Graphic by Rachel Alexander

 Advocates see the stay-at-home order as an opportunity for abusers to silence survivors 

By Kaleigh Carroll

As shelter-in-place orders are put into effect across the globe, reports of domestic violence are becoming more common. Yet Bellingham has not seen the same trend.

Global domestic violence report numbers show an increase in reported domestic violence cases, according to “The New York Times.” 

According to the Bellingham Police Department’s crime statistics, in March 2019 there were 76 domestic violence reports, and in March 2020, there were also 76 domestic violence reports. 

Amidst the stagnant amount of cases, Bellingham domestic violence advocacy agencies are worried survivors are remaining silent out of fear. 

“The line that a lot of authorities in Washington [state] have said is, ‘stay home, stay safe.’ That can be incredibly isolating for someone whose home isn’t a safe space,” said Elizabeth Hart, a support services manager for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services (DVSAS).

Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order began on March 23 and has most recently been extended to May 4. During which, Washington residents are encouraged to social distance, minimize nonessential travel and self-isolate at home.

Hart said that domestic violence thrives when survivors are isolated from support systems and are within easy access of their abuser. When a survivor is confined to the same living space as their abuser without anywhere to escape, like school or work, abuse can intensify.

High financial, food or housing insecurity can also create elevated stress within households, which can lead to cases of domestic violence, Hart said. The rising unemployment level and general economic uncertainty created by COVID-19 has been described, by Hart, as the perfect “recipe” for domestic violence.

Whatcom County, like most of the state, has seen a sharp increase in unemployment since the stay-at-home order. The most recent data from the Washington State Employment Security Department indicates that unemployment claims in the county are up 2,872% from this time last month, from 198 to 5,885.

“The person who is being abused is walking on eggshells … and that becomes something that is omnipresent, and it has to be done 24/7,” said Kristin Anderson, a Western sociology professor who studies domestic violence.

Anderson compared the current relationship between domestic violence and economic uncertainty to data observed during the Great Recession.

She points to the 2016 study, Intimate Partner Violence in the Great Recession, as an insight into current trends. The authors compiled unemployment and family survey data from before, during and after the recession.

Ultimately, the study concluded, “worsening economic conditions are associated with parents being in a violent or controlling marriage.”

Kelly Starr, the public affairs correspondent for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said an increase in reports is only “one part of the problem.” Starr said that some hotlines are experiencing a decrease in calls, which can indicate that survivors don’t feel safe enough to reach out for help.

Hart said she isn’t surprised some hotlines have seen a decrease in reports because abusers now have “an intensified ability to track and control their partners.”

Hart also worries that survivors are unsure of what advocacy services are still open during the stay-at-home order.

In a time of high uncertainty, Hart emphasized that DVSAS is here to “support people whether they’re in an abusive relationship, trying to leave an abusive relationship or unsure of what they want to do.”

Locally, DVSAS is still operating its 24-hour hotline,1-877-715-1563, safe housing facilities and assistance with emergency protection orders. Resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline also operate 24/7 and can be reached at 1-800-799-7233.

When direct phone calls aren’t a safe option, Starr recommends that survivors use domestic violence chat services. The National Domestic Violence Hotline also provides confidential one-on-one online chat rooms that are open 24/7.

Survivors can also get connected to resources through the Bellingham Police Department. When officers are called to a domestic violence report they provide survivors with resources at the scene, according to Deputy Chief Flo Simon. 

Both Hart and Starr stressed the important role that community members can play in stopping domestic violence. They encourage everyone to reach out to their friends and family, regardless of if they live with a known abuser.

“It’s more important now for all of us to stay socially connected even when we’re physically apart,” Hart said. 

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