Domestic Violence During the Pandemic: Staying Home Meant Dealing With a Different Threat

In some places like Canton, new strategies are being used to get survivors the help they need.

This story is part of WDET’s Crossing the Lines: Canton Battles COVID series, reconnecting listeners with the people they met and issues they discovered during WDET’s 2019 Crossing the Lines Canton. Now, two years later, explore how the township of Canton has fared during the coronavirus pandemic and examine how the lives of residents have changed over the past year. 

In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, the state went into lockdown seeking refuge from an unseen threat. For some, that meant staying home and dealing with a different sort of risk.

Domestic violence didn’t go away during the past year. In some communities like Canton, new strategies are being used to reduce the threat people face from abusers.

At times, everyone felt the panic, paranoia and helplessness of pandemic life. Where do you go when there’s nowhere to go? For those who treat the realities of domestic violence, it often brings out the best in them. For abusers, it only adds to the terror they inflict.

“When someone who is abusive feels that they are losing power and control in a situation, they often attempt to exert power as a way to regain that control within their family,” says Rachel Miller, a community response advocate covering Canton for First Step. It’s a nonprofit dedicated to helping survivors of domestic and sexual violence. 

Since the start of the pandemic, First Step has seen a 23% reduction in calls for help from Canton Township. During that same time period, calls to police about abusive situations have gone up by 18%.

“Sometimes staying within that home is the safest option for them at that time until they have, you know, a strong safety plan and network outside of the home that can help support them once they’ve left and also to try to keep them safe.” –Rachel Miller, a community response advocate covering Canton for First Step

She says her group is aptly named; the first step is often a series of small actions.

“Oftentimes it can take up to seven to 10 times for a survivor to leave a domestic violence situation,” Miller says. “So there are definitely times in which we are working with new survivors.”

Miller says just letting women know there’s help available is a challenge.

“Many survivors are not aware that there are services out there,” she says.

That’s why Canton is one of three Wayne County municipalities to adopt what’s called Lethality Assessment Program, or LAP.

“It provides survivors and officers an immediate way to intervene after an assault takes place,” says Miller.

Officers will ask the abused person to complete an evaluation on-scene and then provide them with a phone to call support services like First Step.

Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. She started devising the screener for the evaluation while teaching at Wayne State University.

“The danger assessment was developed in order to help abused women get an accurate assessment of how dangerous their situation is, how likely their situation is to escalate to a domestic violence homicide,” she says.

A Need for New Solutions

Campbell finished the LAP with the help of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence in the 1980s.

She says there was a need for new solutions to combat domestic violence.

“First responders told us they would sometimes walk away from a house with a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach thinking, ‘Oh, this is gonna end up tragically, something horrible is going to happen here’ and I’m not at all sure that victim is going to get in touch with services,” Campbell says.

She says it’s important for survivors to seek that extra help from outside of law enforcement.

“Because first responders are not social workers. It’s not what they’re about,” Campbell says.

Director of Police Services for Canton Township Chad Baugh agrees.

“We really are not in position to follow up, you know, after we resolve the immediate crisis,” Baugh says. “The role of a police officer in a police department is evolving now. And I think that’s where we’re at. We can help people navigate their struggles.”

Later this year, Canton Township Police will enlist the help of a social worker to follow up with those affected by domestic violence and other social issues like hoarding and substance abuse.

“If you have a person in place they can help manage those resources and get resources and be able to communicate with in a professional way actually provide services one on one,” Baugh says. “I think are going to be very well situated and I think that’s how law enforcement is progressing.”

Support like that is important because often survivors are biding their time.

“Sometimes staying within that home is the safest option for them at that time until they have, you know, a strong safety plan and network outside of the home that can help support them once they’ve left and also to try to keep them safe,” Miller says.

Keeping victims safe extends beyond the realm of social workers and law enforcement.

“I’m a nurse. So I’m very much about us doing good assessment for domestic violence in the health care system,” Campbell says. “47% of the women who were murdered were in the health care system in the year before they were killed.”

Listen: New strategies are being used to reduce the threat of domestic violence. 

Facing such grim outcomes, Miller says cities and townships must find new ways to aid those dealing with domestic violence.

“Because the threat is generally if you leave, I will kill you,” she says.

Often the biggest hurdle isn’t the willingness to leave, it’s the money.

“So when somebody doesn’t have the financial power to leave, it makes it incredibly difficult in our society to take those next steps,” Miller says.

Since First Step is a nonprofit, the service helps by donating items to victims and allowing them to save money. 

“Donation items such as hygiene products, household items where instead of a survivor having to spend, maybe they’re limited means on that, we’re able to help fill that hole for them,” Miller says. “So they can actually utilize their money for an apartment or other housing solutions.”

With survivors surrounded by threats both evident and invisible, the pandemic has made getting aid to victims quickly and effectively more important now than ever before.

If you need help, contact First Step at 734-722-6800 or go to First Step’s website.

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  • Russ McNamara
    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.