Domestic violence in Pasco County has followed a worldwide trend of increased cases and incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kelly Sinn, chief executive officer with Sunrise of Pasco County, a domestic and sexual violence center that offers shelter and services for victims, said her agency saw a 22% increase in hotline calls during the pandemic’s first three months.
However, during the same period, the Sunrise shelter occupancy numbers were actually down.
“A lot of what we were hearing on our hotline, which is the gateway into shelter, was these individuals in abusive relationships were stuck at home but they felt they were better off there,’’ Sinn said. “It’s the evil they know versus the evil they don’t know. The increased risk of contracting coronavirus in a residential facility — instead of being around two to four people, they might be around up to 40 — wasn’t worth it.’’
The pandemic — and its accompanying quarantines, social isolation, travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders — has created a rise in domestic violence cases worldwide, according to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine.
The Pasco Sheriff’s Office reports that the monthly total in January to the monthly total in April — the heart of the pandemic’s shutdown — accounted for increases in domestic violence calls (22.4%), police reports (30.5%) and arrests (31.8%) within the county.
The pandemic also has changed the way that Sunrise does business.
“The early trend was we weren’t getting as many (people) in shelter,’’ Sinn said. “They found a way to cope and live with what was happening to them. They adjusted their life to abuse in the home, knowing what was coming and when it was coming, instead of dealing with a virus they knew nothing about.
“Now, that is changing. Our (shelter) numbers are going back up. With the virus out there, we’ve had to adjust,” she said.
The 40-bed Sunrise shelter, which generally ran above capacity in the pre-coronavirus days, has administered social distancing rules while keeping its occupancy at about 25 to 30. The normal eight-week average stay has trended up to nine weeks or 10 weeks.
“We’re now limiting it to one family per room — or, if we have two women unaccompanied, we can put both of them in a room together — because we want to keep our victims and staff safe,’’ Sinn said. “We had to change quickly because things have happened quickly.
“The bottom line is, we’re trying to limit the number of people who come into the shelter. We have turned to telemedicine for doctors and other providers. Normally, we would have case managers, counselors and legal advocates all coming in and out. Now, we are limiting interactions — and that might mean a call from the office, which might be on the other side of the parking lot. But, we must take these precautions,” she said.
Even with those precautions, Sinn said Sunrise’s central mission won’t be compromised.
“If somebody calls our hotline and it’s a dangerous situation, we’re going to do anything we can to get them into shelter,’’ Sinn said. “Whether that’s sleeping on a trundle, a blow-up mattress or moving people around, we’ll do that.
“You have to make accommodations (immediately) because there’s no guarantee that individual will be safe or want to go (later). In the first few months (of the pandemic), people were scared and our numbers were low. As people become more comfortable with the virus and they can’t take abuse anymore, our numbers have increased. We are managing,” she said.
There was preliminary talk of expanding the shelter at Sunrise, which opened in 1982 as a solitary office and help from community members who offered shelter to victims. The need for a permanent shelter became obvious. The 24-bed shelter was expanded to 40 in 2013. But, further expansion — and maybe other financial considerations — is on hold due to the virus.
Sunrise, which has an annual $3.5 million budget, relies on federal, state and local government funding, along with private donations and fundraisers. An annual breakfast fundraiser was canceled in April, but a golf tournament remains set — for now — on Oct. 5 at Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club.
“While there have been closings and limited services in a lot of businesses, a key message for us is Sunrise is open and available,’’ Sinn said. “It’s still a resource. People don’t have to live in an unsafe environment. Our hotline (352-521-3120) is 24/7. Even if individuals aren’t ready to leave, we can establish safety plans and offer other resources they may not have known about.
“We need our community and our donors. Every nonprofit is feeling the pinch from the virus. But, our services are continuing, even in tough times. It’s humbling to see the support we continue to get and to know our community values what we can provide,” she said.
WHAT TO DO?
Here are some tips on protecting yourself from domestic violence during the pandemic.
Safety Steps You Can Take
Johns Hopkins Medicine offers these suggestions to help, if someone you live with becomes verbally or emotionally hurtful, threatens you, has episodes of explosive anger or harms animals:
- Find a place you can retreat to safely. Avoid the bathroom or kitchen.
- Enlist support from a trusted friend or family member you can call.
- If necessary, use a code word or phrase to indicate you need help.
- Memorize phone numbers of people and agencies you might need to call in an emergency.
- Make sure you can easily access cash, identification (driver’s license and Social Security card), birth and marriage certificates, credit cards, safe deposit box keys, and bank information and health insurance information. Be sure to keep any documentation (photos, medical or police reports) relating to previous episodes of abuse.
Help is available
The 24-hour Sunrise of Pasco hotline/helpline is (352) 521-3120. The website is SunrisePasco.org.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is (800) 799-7233 (SAFE).
By Joey Johnston
Published August 26, 2020