For domestic violence victims forced to stay home with their abusers, both men and women, their immediate concern is minimizing exposure to aggression and injury. Having prosecuted domestic violence cases for years, I have seen anecdotally what is corroborated empirically: There are common patterns with regard to how and under what circumstances violence begins and escalates. Accordingly, when an abuser and victim are quarantined together, the goal is to take steps designed to prevent abuse. Here are five ideas.
1. Proactive Home Safety Planning
Amid concern over threats to physical health, some abusers may manipulate victims by withholding access to medication, food, and disinfecting products such as hand sanitizer. This can be a serious issue when a victim is classified as an “essential employee” who has to go to work every day, particularly given the scarcity of sanitizing products on the market.
Some victims who have found themselves in this dilemma can choose to leave a supply of health essentials with family members, friends, and neighbors if they worry their partner may seize their supplies in the home, in order to ensure they will have the access they need.
2. Creating Weapon-Free Zones
Family members living with an abusive individual can proactively restrict access to weapons. In addition to firearms, which are ideally in an offsite, locked storage container, household members in fear of an explosive partner are wise to remove anything that can be used as a weapon in the heat of anger. This includes sharp knives as well as heavy objects, or objects with sharp edges within reach on countertops.
Look around in your kitchen to see how easy it would be in most households to grab something that could be used as a weapon. Common items such as coffee mugs and countertop appliances such as can openers can be safely stored and secured high in cabinets and other places from which they are more time-consuming and complicated to retrieve. Potential victims are wise to clear countertops in all rooms of easy-to-grab items that can be weaponized.
3. Making Use of All Available Space
Even under orders to shelter in place, victims can request an abuser take a walk outside to “cool off,” or go themselves. Depending on the neighborhood or the climate, however, this is not always feasible. Sometimes taking a break on a balcony or even in a locked vehicle is an option, as long as victims remember to take their phone, iPad, medication, or anything else they might need.
If possible, vehicles should be parked where there is access to a phone or Internet signal, as opposed to three levels underground in a parking garage where there is no service. Victims are further advised to make sure all of their devices remain charged, even when at home, in case they need to move quickly to create distance to avoid abuse.
4. The Defense of Distraction
Whether or not a relationship is violent, many arguments can be defused through distraction. Partners in volatile relationships stuck at home together can strategize activities, television shows, or even special meals that might be used to divert negative attention. When there are multiple family members living with a volatile individual, they might diffuse this responsibility to capitalize on safety in numbers, sharing efforts to be the voice of reason.
Regarding seeking help from outside the home, one of the suggestions Carly Pildis makes in Tablet is agreeing on an innocuous-sounding word to use in a phone call to a family member or friend, who will then know to come over and bring food or other resources. This is because many abusers are on better behavior in the company of others. As a practical matter, even if the friend or family member has to communicate through a screen door and leave what they bring outside to be sanitized, the goal is to create a diversion that may help de-escalate tension.
5. Securing Support
Fortunately, even with so many resources being diverted to efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, there are still places victims can call. Safety numbers should be pre-programmed into phones and stored in safe places. The National Domestic Violence Hotline website contains emergency numbers to call and text, as well as information, advice, and abundant links to access other resources to stay safe.
For the rest of us, we can make sure to check in with connections within our own social network, particularly those who are vulnerable, to provide support in a time of need. Collective efforts to support each other will improve our ability to ensure friends and loved ones are able to weather the storm, staying both healthy and safe.