May 22, 2020 10:09:16 AM
In the Golden Triangle, numbers indicate domestic violence could be on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Starkville Police Chief Mark Ballard said that since shelter in place orders began to be issued throughout the state in late March and early April, his officers have responded to more domestic violence and family disturbance calls, even as calls to more public disputes like bar fights and the type of crimes that arise around university settings declined. For one two-week period in April, SPD received 10 calls about domestic violence, he said -- twice the number of calls they received in the same two-week period in 2019.
"Perhaps maybe they're spending too much time together, but I think also there's a lot of financial pressures that are out there," Ballard said. "There's a lot of uncertainty and unknown out there. I think it's a combination of those factors that are probably leading to an increase in domestic calls for service."
Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott agreed, estimating his deputies have seen about a 30 percent uptick in domestic violence and "family disturbance" calls -- the latter typically involving disputes between parents and teenagers that got out of hand.
"They had been down prior to now," he said. "We hadn't seen this many on the family disturbances ... but as far as domestic violence cases, they've been up more now than they have in recent years."
He added some of the domestic violence calls have been more violent than usual, pointing to an incident last week in which a man shot into a home and vehicle -- an incident he believes was domestic in nature.
Lowndes County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Brent Swan said deputies haven't seen a noticeable increase or decrease in domestic calls, adding violent felonies had decreased as a whole since the pandemic began. Likewise, Columbus Police Chief Fred Shelton said numbers of domestic violence calls and arrests have gradually decreased in the city -- from 26 calls in January, to 12 in March and only 10 in April.
However, Shelton and Dorothy Sanders, CPD's domestic violence coordinator and victims advocate, said the department has seen an increase in victims requesting protective orders against their abusers. Sanders said she assisted with seven such orders in April and four so far this month, including one on Thursday. In January, she didn't help with any, and only worked on two each in February and March.
Moreover, Shelton feels that as the weather gets warmer and the pandemic continues, tensions might begin to boil over, and the department could soon start seeing more calls.
"I'm aware that potential is there," he said. "... I think there's going to be some breakdown in some family communications, which is going to lead to some type of physical violence."
Virus fear leads to underreporting
The numbers follow a national and even international trend.
Media outlets all over the country have reported upticks in child abuse and intimate partner violence. The United Nations reported an increase in calls to domestic violence crisis hotlines all over the world, while a Psychology Today article published earlier this month reported the UN's Population Fund is estimating three months of quarantine will result in a 20-percent rise in intimate partner violence worldwide, an additional 15 million cases. The same article, along with publications such as Forensic Science International, reported domestic violence incidents always increase in times of natural disasters or economic downturn.
Also a concern for law enforcement and victims' advocates are fears that the violence is underreported as victims trapped inside with their abusers are unable to call for help or are too afraid of contracting COVID-19 to go to a shelter or hospital.
"With the level of isolation, how are you going to get out?" said Wendy Mahoney, executive director for Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "How are you going to call somebody? How are you going to leave the house to go anywhere? Our shelter numbers are down. ... Why are they not going? Because you're in the house. You're not supposed to go anywhere. People are fearful of COVID, so they're not going anywhere."
During the pandemic, Mahoney said, domestic violence shelters around the state emptied. Joyce Tucker, executive director for Safe Haven in the Golden Triangle, said she has not seen an increase in either individuals asking for shelter services or even calling the crisis hotline. Columbus native Stephanie Johnson, executive director for Tupelo's shelter S.A.F.E., said her shelter housed at least 75 percent of its capacity before the pandemic began, but those numbers dwindled after March.
Both shelters had to adjust policies following the pandemic, limiting the movements of victims who sought shelter so that they couldn't leave the property except for work or medical care.
"When we let them know that our shelter in place order had been issued, I think they realized what that was going to be like and what it was like, because they weren't allowed to leave the shelter, so at that point they began to find other safe places to go," Johnson said.
Tucker said she suspects fear of the virus led to the decrease in numbers of those seeking shelter.
"Some may be apprehensive to come into the shelter when they know it's a communal environment," she said, "and they maybe don't want to risk coming into a shelter to contract the virus. Then there's some that there may not have been a need for emergency shelter."
Both Tucker and Johnson said they'd had cases where individuals or families would seek shelter just long enough to make other arrangements with family or friends.
Still, while Mahoney said there is no statewide data right now to back her up, she feels certain incidents of violence against intimate partners or family members increased in March, April and early May when the shelter in place and even gradually looser statewide orders kept many businesses closed and prevented citizens from leaving their homes for most non-essential outings.
"Isolation is a part of it," she said. "If you're already being isolated and then you have a pandemic or a health crisis or a systemic issue that isolates you even more, that causes greater harm or greater fear for individuals. But we also know with domestic violence ... it invokes fear. So if you're already fearful in your home and then there's fear put on by this particular issue, we just know that all those particular dynamics increase also."
People 'settling in' because of economy
Both Scott and Shelton said they worry about the underreporting of domestic crimes. In particular, Shelton said, he feels the economic downturn may be contributing to a cycle of violence as victims decide they'll risk staying with an abuser rather than being without money or resources.
"Right now people ... are settling in," he said. "Some of them don't have jobs. That's always going to put tension on them. So ... a lot of it is going to be underreported because right now, 'I don't have anywhere else to go. This is my sole breadwinner so I'll just have to endure what I have to do until this is over.'"
Both he and Scott urged victims to reach out anyway, with Shelton emphasizing that officers will personally take victims and their families to safe places if need be and Scott pointing out his office has resources for victims, even if the abuse they're experiencing is mental, rather than physical.
"Whatever resources we have available, we're going to put these victims on the path to try to get some help," Scott said.
To report domestic violence or contact a local shelter, call Safe Haven at 662-327-6040 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
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