Stay-at-home order poses special problems for victims of abuse

As New Jerseyans follow the executive order to stay at home and hole up with family members, experts say that hiding behind closed doors can present special and dangerous issues for those who suffer abuse at the hands of a partner.

“Women, or anyone actually, who’s a little bit afraid of their spouse, they already have an issue calling police, but now they have nowhere to go because they’re supposed to stay at home,” said Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, a Republican from Holmdel.

Abuse takes on many different forms, said Diane Williams, president and CEO of Jersey Battered Women’s Service, Inc.

“It could be physical abuse —bruising, and physical things that you could see,” she said. “But there are so many kinds of abuse, financial abuse or control. Or emotional abuse where there’s putdowns. There is controlling behavior, which would be something like always wanting to see someone’s email or telephone, stalking them, following them.”

All remain part of abusive relationships — and are often even more pronounced — now in the last few weeks that New Jersey’s had a shelter-in-place order in effect.

“The same things are in place, the regular stressors of life, but now it’s exponentially more so,” said Anna Martinez, director of the division of women at the state Department of Children and Families.

Statistics show that stress from a crisis causes domestic violence to increase. But in some cases, support groups say they’ve seen a drop in the number of those reaching out.

“So actually it’s really scary right now, because what we have seen is a very sharp decrease in our helpline calls,” Williams said.

At the same time, Karolina Dehnhard runs a service called Divorce Dynasty, where she’s seeing an increase in reports of domestic abuse among suburban women.

“These women, prior to the coronavirus, were not reaching out to professional supports,” she explained. “They were relying on their girlfriends for support systems. Well now, that support system is gone.”

Experts say neighbors can be a critical lifeline, and that it’s important to check in on someone who could be in trouble during this stay-at-home order.

Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted this week that stay-at home orders would be lifted for anyone who was afraid to be in their home.

“The shelters are open, our shelter is open,” Williams said. “We are taking victims in all of the time. And we have the space to be able to do that. And we are doing everything that we can to mitigate any risk of the coronavirus.”

The state has a hotline for victims of abuse — 1 (800) 572-7233 — and callers are put in touch with the local resources in their county, Martinez said.

“They also have it for people who are hard of hearing,” said DiMaso. “You know, people with any kind of physical disability sometimes get abused more.”

If it’s not safe to call, victims can text for help, officials say.

“You just text LOVEIS in capital letters — one word: L-O-V-E-I-S — to 22522,” DiMaso said. “You text that, there’ll be somebody there that can chat with you and walk you through what you may need to do to help yourself.”

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