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Domestic Abuse Cases Grow During Pandemic, Local Officials Explain Why

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Lauren Thompson, director of domestic violence services at the YWCA Central Alabama in downtown Birmingham. (Marvin Gentry, For The Birmingham Times)
By Sydney Melson
The Birmingham Times

Over a seven-day period in Birmingham earlier this month, at least three people were killed in incidents of domestic violence.

According to Birmingham Police Department (BPD) Police Chief Patrick Smith, homicides are up 8.6 percent in the city—and many of those are because of domestic violence and fights among people who know each other. During a recent video news release, the chief revealed that the BPD has seen a steady uptick in domestic violence incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Many of the homicides that we’ve seen, I want to say about 25 of them have occurred indoors, inside a residence,” Smith said, adding that another 20 or so homicides have occurred just outside the home and are domestic-related.

The BPD isn’t the only agency reporting an increase these incidents. The number of domestic violence calls to the YWCA has increased this year over last, said Lauren Thompson, director of domestic violence services at the YWCA Central Alabama in downtown Birmingham.

“So far this year, we’ve received over 1,900 calls to our 24/7 crisis line (as of November 22),” Thompson said. “In 2019, the YWCA received a total of 2,014 for the entire year. So, in a shorter amount of time, [from March to November], we’ve seen an increase in calls, and increases in requests for advocacy, case management, legal assistance, and confidential shelters.”

Partner Violence

One reason for the increase is partner violence, or violence between two or more people in a romantic relationship, where survivors, victims, and abusers are in the same household for longer periods of time because of the coronavirus, Thompson explained.

“One of the ways COVID-19 has affected people is unemployment,” she said. “So many of our callers and current clients or their abusers have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced.”

Instances of domestic violence can include violence among family members, as well.

“I think everyone can relate to the effect that COVID-19 has had on different aspects of our lives and in different sectors of the community,” Thompson said. “Our clients are struggling economically. When economic independence is already a barrier to self-sufficiency, it becomes much harder for a victim or survivor to leave. The pandemic is really making things difficult.”

Chief Smith agreed: “People can feel trapped in a relationship or trapped inside of a residence. Or maybe the person who is the abuser is the breadwinner in the house. I would ask, ‘What are your health, well-being, mental stability, and life worth?’ Take the chance, reach out, ask for help. … Let us provide the resources [you need].”

With more people needing services remotely, the Y has adapted and moved to a more virtual atmosphere that has included virtual seminars.

“We’ve had a series of webinars about eliminating gender-based violence, centering the LGBTQ+ experience, and more. We’re really focusing on raising awareness to end gender-based violence,” said Thompson, adding that doing so online is easy and accessible.

Pattern of Behavior

Thompson, who assumed the role of director of domestic violence at the YWCA in May of this year, worked with a domestic violence and sexual assault agency in Texas for five years.

“Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior, in which someone in a relationship maintains power and control over the other person. Those behaviors can be physical, psychological, verbal, sexual, or a combination of behaviors,” she explained. “One in three women and one in four men have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner, such as slapping, shoving, or pushing. One in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence, and 90 percent of these children are eyewitnesses.”

Thompson started her work with social justice issues shortly after she graduated from Texas Tech University with a bachelor’s in political science in 2015.

“I was always very involved in women’s issues, so I wanted to find a profession that would allow me to continue my activism,” she said.

The YWCA provides services that are invaluable for people in Central Alabama, Thompson said.

“We make safety plans with a crisis line specialist when individuals call in. We have two confidential shelters in Jefferson and St. Clair counties. We have individual counseling and victim support groups. We help [clients] set goals so they can become more self-sufficient. We also offer legal assistance for victims and survivors who need protection orders, are getting divorced, or have issues related to child custody,” she said.

The organization also tries to ensure that family life goes smoothly through quality education and services, such as the YWCA’s child development center for homeless, low-income, and working-class families.

“These programs are provided despite the violence or the family’s ability to earn a living wage,” said Thompson, adding that 99 percent of domestic violence survivors experience economic abuse.

“That means being forced to work but then giving their paycheck to the abuser or not being allowed to work and only given an allowance,” she said.

Additionally, when it comes to partner violence, only 34 percent of survivors report seeking medical attention.

“This is huge because they might not have access to medical care. It may be for financial reasons or out of fear,” Thompson said.

The issue of people losing their jobs or having hours reduced due to COVID-19 can make those problems worse.

“Sometimes we get calls from our clients that abusers will show up and harass them at work, which might cause them to lose their job or even quit because it’s unbearable,” she said.

Community Can Help

The community can help also reduce gender-based violence, or violence that targets a person based on their gender identity.

“[First, people need to] educate themselves about antiviolence policies at work and school. What should an antiviolence policy look like in a professional setting, in an educational setting, or at a national level?” Thompson said. “The second way is to lead by example. Don’t engage in violence. If you know someone who may be in a violent situation, reach out to them and offer assistance. You can also support your local domestic violence shelters.”

One question that seems to be on the minds of many has always been: why does an individual stay in an abusive relationship?

“It’s because of threats, the use of intimidation, and emotional abuse,” Thompson said. “Domestic violence is not just physical. Abusers will minimize pain, deny their abusive behavior, or blame the victim or survivor. All of these things create this element of power and control in a relationship.”

Thompson said she wants to foster a community in which everyone looks out for each other.

“We should become educated about systemic issues surrounding a victim’s or survivor’s ability to become self-sufficient, and also become educated about and aware of the issues pertaining to domestic violence so we can raise awareness and educate others,” she said. “The YWCA tries to help [the victim or survivor] regain their own power and their autonomy through validating [the victim or survivor’s] feelings, validating their experiences, and helping them make their own choices.”

Looking for domestic violence resources? The Birmingham Police Department (BPD) and YWCA Central Alabama can help. BPD Chief Patrick Smith urges anyone in a domestic violence situation to call the 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-650-6522 or dial 911. For more information about domestic abuse, contact the BPD Special Victims Unit at 205-297-8413. YWCA Central Alabama Director of Domestic Violence Services Lauren Thompson encourages anyone dealing with domestic violence to call the 24-hour YWCA Crisis Hotline at 205-322-4878 or 1-800-650-6522. At home with an abuser and can’t call the crisis line? Text LOVEIS to 22522 to the National Domestic Violence Hotline or visit thehotline.org.