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When Home Isn’t Safe: Abuse Victims Look For Support During Pandemic

Sylvia Jackson, executive director of the Women's Safe House in St. Louis, said the shelter's crisis hotline received 44% more calls in March 2020 compared to the same month last year.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Sylvia Jackson, executive director of the Women's Safe House in St. Louis, said the shelter's crisis hotline received 44% more calls in March 2020 compared to the same month last year.

Domestic violence shelters in St. Louis are fielding more calls from women afraid for their safety, as the pandemic forces them to live in isolation with their abusers. 

With unemployment rates surging and schools shuttered for the rest of the school year, advocates say conditions are ripe for violence at home. But many local shelters have stopped accepting new residents during the pandemic, making it harder for women to leave abusive situations.

The Women’s Safe House in St. Louis received 361 calls to its crisis intervention hotline in March, a 44% increase compared to March 2019.

Many callers are now looking for ways to avoid conflict so they can remain in their homes, said executive director Sylvia Jackson. 

The pandemic, she said, has placed these women in an impossible situation, as they weigh the risks of becoming infected if they leave or being beaten if they stay. 

“All we can do is meet them where they are now,” Jackson said, adding staff help women plan ways to de-escalate situations and if necessary, protect themselves — by covering their heads and rolling up in a ball. 

Saint Martha’s Hall, a shelter for abused women and their children in St. Louis, has had to develop new strategies for counseling callers, said executive director Jessica Woolbright. 

“It used to be, we’re not even going to talk to her on the phone if we know that the person who has been violent with her is still in that house,” Woolbright said. 

The pandemic has forced them to change tactics. In some cases, Saint Martha’s staff members are trying to counsel women in just a few minutes, while they’re out of earshot of their abusive partner.

“We're trying to do the same amount of work in less time, so we can give her that information she needs as quickly as possible,” Woolbright said.

More need, fewer options

Advocates who work with abused women and children are quick to point out that the outbreak isn’t causing more violence at home. Instead, it’s putting more stress on already-strained families — through missed work, the looming threat of eviction and new demands of homeschooling children. 

“It’s not just the coronavirus itself, but also housing insecurity and unemployment and hunger,” Jackson said. “The risk for violence escalates [because] people don’t have access to counselors or enough tools in their toolbox to know how to deal with this stress.”

Incidents of domestic violence have also risen sharply since the start of the outbreak, according to the United Nations, with calls to crisis lines doubling or even tripling in some cases.

Despite the increased risks, the pandemic has also reduced the number of options for abused women. 

The Women’s Safe House has stopped accepting new residents in an effort to avoid infecting their current residents — and that’s the case for most shelters in St. Louis, Jackson said. Though Saint Martha's Hall is still taking new residents, they are working to reduce the total number of families to allow for social distancing inside the shelter. 

Both shelters also have instituted new policies to keep residents from getting sick, such as staggering meal times, reducing the number of on-site staff and doing daily health checkups. 

But Jackson worries about what will happen if a resident does become infected. 

The Women’s Safe House has a designated quarantine area, she said, but its ventilation system is connected to the rest of the shelter.

“We would have to get that family out of the building as soon as possible,” Jackson said. “My concern is, where are they going? What's going to happen to the domestic violence victims and their kids that need to be in a safe space? Those are the things that are keeping me up at night.”

If you need help, call the Women's Safe House at 314-772-4535, Saint Martha's Hall at 314-533-1313 or Safe Connections at 314-531-2003. Metro East residents can contact the Violence Prevention Center in Belleville at 618-235-0892.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the current intake policies of Saint Martha's Hall. The shelter is accepting new residents, but working to reduce the number of families to allow for social distancing.

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Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award.