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For Domestic Abuse Victims, Safer-At-Home Order Can Mean Trapped At Home

Across the globe, lockdowns have increased the danger for people forced to stay at home with their abusers.

While Wisconsin is under a safer-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the home may not be a safe place for people living with domestic violence and abuse. 

Across the globe, lockdowns have increased the danger for women forced to stay at home with their abusers. Going to work used to serve as an escape and safe place. But now, with a lack of privacy at home people are less able to call or reach out for help undetected. Children who are also home from school are also now more exposed to trauma.  

"With the safer-at-home order, what will happen with individuals who were perhaps already living in an abuse environment — now they're literally trapped with their abuser," says Angela Mancuso, the executive director of The Women's Center in Waukesha, Wis. 

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While following social distancing is a critical need during a global pandemic, so is operating a women’s  shelter. And while Mancuso says they’ve had to work around some serious obstacles, they’re still here to help.

"We would really like people to know who are struggling right now in an abuse environment that they're not alone and there are organizations like The Women's Center that are open and ready. We're ready to help as best we can," she says.

"With the safer at home order, what will happen with individuals who were perhaps already living in an abuse environment — now they're literally trapped with their abuser."

When first hearing the safer-at-home order, Mancuso says that she and her staff had a "flood of emotions and feelings." How could they still meet the needs of people who rely on their services in a safe and healthy way? 

The Women's Center has adapted its programming. The shelter remains open, a hotline is available 24-hours a day, counseling and advocacy services are now done remotely, and they still have rape crisis response teams available. But out of all the work that can be done remotely, Mancuso admits many of the services aren't the same if you're not face-to-face.

"It's really hard to do a phone session with a 4-year-old for example. It's hard to sit still, it's not their usual environment that they're used to," she notes. "So talking about trauma not away from their home environment can cause some problems."

If people need to stay at the shelter, Mancuso says they will be asked about their health conditions. But it won't be used "as a means to screen people out by any measure. We just need to know what we're dealing with."

Inside the shelter, there is also additional room spacing, a smaller staff and more cleaning, safety and social distancing protocols, according to Mancuso. She adds that more activities for families and kids living at the shelter have been added to try and lessen the stress families are experiencing on top of a COVID-19 pandemic. 

The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres cited a sharp rise in domestic violence amid global coronavirus lockdowns. The national domestic violence hotline has noted a drop in calls around the U.S., according to Mancuso. 

"Calls to hotlines around the country have dropped a little bit, and that’s not because domestic violence is down — that’s because people cannot actually physically call for help," she says.

"Calls to hotlines around the country have dropped a little bit, and that's not because domestic violence is down — that's because people cannot actually physically call for help."

The only way to address domestic violence under a lockdown is to let as many people know as possible what resources are still available to them says Mancuso. "We need neighbors to check on neighbors. It's a community-wide issue — we need all the help we can get right now ... We don't know the magnitude of the violence that is happening behind closed doors during the lockdown," she says.

Privacy, or the lack of it, is a huge issue for people experiencing domestic violence and abuse. Mancuso notes that the measures in place for social distancing and isolation are "critically important."

"We also know that that provides an opportunity for abusers to really unleash more violence," she adds. "And because domestic violence is rooted in power and control, right now so many people are feeling that lack of control over our lives and for individuals who don't have strong coping mechanisms or who manage with that, they'll take it out on their victim — including children."

Mancuso says a lot of the center's clients had existing safety plans and goals in place that have needed adjusting during the pandemic. "Changes in routines have been altered, so that means safety measures and planned activities need to be reconsidered," she explains.

So instead of plans that included safe places to go, now people must consider where's the safest place to go in your own home.

Steps To Take If You're Experiencing Domestic Violence:

  • File a restraining order online. If you live in Milwaukee County, you can learn more here.
  • Identify safe areas in your house: "Try not to back yourself into a room with one exit like a bathroom or kitchen," says Mancuso. "And be mindful of rooms where there are things that can be weaponized."
  • Keep your phone charged.
  • Keep your keys close by.
  • Identify who could be a safe person to go to outside of your home: "Maybe set up keywords, code words, gestures and signals if you're using a lot of visual chatting," says Mancuso. 
  • Teach children to not get involved and to find a safe space to hide. Teach kids safety words/gestures and what to say if they have to dial 911.
  • Call for help if you can.

Amid Wisconsin's safer-at-home order, The Women's Center continues to provide free and confidential support to adults and children through tele-advocacy, crisis response, emergency shelter, and a 24-hour hotline. You can get help or support survivors by connecting online or by calling the 24-hour hotline at 262-542-3828.

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.


Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.