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As crisis calls increase, domestic violence shelters have COVID-19 plans

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Domestic abuse crisis calls are increasing in Alabama and some police departments report slight decreases in other criminal activity as people are told to stay at home to slow down the spread of COVID-19.

The YWCA Central Alabama shelter in Birmingham told Alabama Daily News it received roughly double the number of calls to its crisis hotline on the weekend of March 20-21 compared to the average weekend.

Domestic abuse shelters around the state haven’t seen a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking shelter, but expect they will as people in already abusive relationships are isolated in their homes longer.

“I don’t think that that’s a secret for anybody,” said Tay Knight, the Executive Director of the Family Sunshine Center in Montgomery. “When you put people in these situations, where they are isolated, where there are other stressors like maybe loss of employment or reduction in employment and things get tight from a financial perspective, that it is likely to just make the situation worse,” Knight said.

Alabama is not currently under a statewide shelter-in-place order but the city of Birmingham approved its own on Tuesday, prohibiting anyone from leaving their home unless they are part of the essential workforce, going to buy groceries or medicine or wanting to exercise outdoor.

Many businesses statewide have shut their doors to customers in order to obey the social-distancing guidelines recommending by the Alabama Department of Public Health, but the domestic violence shelters across the state will remain open.

Alison Dearing is the executive director of One Place Metro Alabama Family Justice Center in Birmingham that provides legal and medical resources for those facing abuse. She said resources are still available to people being abused during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You are not alone,” Dearing said. “There are people who are still showing up every day trying to figure out how to get information out to you on social media, through other resources, having advocates check in remotely. All of those things are still in place.”

One Place has a forensic nurse on site as well as two detectives with the Birmingham police department, a supervisor in the District Attorney’s office and victim services coordinator with the YWCA who acts like a case manager for those navigating the resources available to them.

The Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence website lists 16 different shelters around the state where people can seek help from domestic abuse or sexual abuse.

Alabamians can also call the state crisis hotline at anytime at 1-800-650-6522 to get help on where to find the nearest shelter to them.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men experience some kind of sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.

In 2019, the YWCA Central Alabama shelter helped 241 adults and 151 children seek shelter from domestic violence.

Dearing suggests those who may be staying in an abusive home take steps like making sure they always have a fully charged cellphone,, creating a safety plan, establishing a code word system with trusted friends or family and hiding any weapons in the house like knives or guns.

Measures are also being taken to make sure the coronavirus does not spread in shelters.

Jawandalyn Brooks, the executive director of the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told ADN that those seeking shelter are being asked if they have visited any of the high-risk areas recently or if they’ve been tested for COVID-19.

“If they disclose that they think they may have the virus, then we go ahead and quarantine them immediately, but the challenge right now for our shelters is getting our clients tested in a safe and confidential space,” Brooks said.

The drive-up testing sites around the state are often not an option for those seeking help from an abuser, Brooks said, and often their clients do not have a primary care doctor.

Brooks said shelters do not have testing kits, but has been in talks with ADPH to try to acquire some.

Crowding in shelters is currently not an issue but Brooks said they have a contingency plan in place if the need arises. The 16 shelters work together as a coalition so if one shelter is crowded, people can be transported to another nearby shelter.

“The benefit of being a part of this statewide network is that we are all in this together and we do rely on each other and we will rely on each other’s resources and are flexible to whatever the needs are for that agency,” Knight said.

Many of the shelters rely on donations and fundraising to provide the necessary resources for their clients. Knight says now more than ever people should consider donating to their local shelter.

Shelters also work together with law enforcement who are usually the first line of contact for people facing abuse.

But law enforcement says they haven’t been seeing an increase in domestic abuse reports recently, mostly because it’s not been long enough to gather data.

“It’s been such a short time, it’s hard to measure things like that especially when it comes to crime because it takes such a long time to gather that information,” Anniston Chief of Police Shane Denham told ADN.

But at least in some areas, COVID-19-control measures and the social distancing appear to be decreasing some of the calls police respond too.

The public information officer for Huntsville police department, Lt. Michael Johnson, said Wednesday Huntsville had seen a 7% decrease in traffic accident reports in the last 72 hours.

“Right now we’re ecstatic, Huntsville people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, staying at home and working from home so fingers are crossed this keeps up,” Johnson said.

Decatur City Police spokeswoman Emme Long said Wednesday that so far, people are heeding the officials warnings to stay indoors. She said the department has seen a reduction in 911 calls and no upticks in criminal activity, including assaults or domestic incidents.

“We’re counting our blessings right now, that’s for sure,” Long said. “I would say overall, Decatur has been receptive to staying home to flatten the curve. We’re grateful for that.”

Lauderdale County Sheriff Rick Singleton said there appears to be a slight decrease in calls to his department.

“It seems like, if anything, our calls our down, I wouldn’t say signifcantly, but noticably,” Singleton said Thursday.

As of Friday morning, nine COVID-19 cases were reported in Lauderdale County.

“We encourage people to not get out anymore than they have to,” Singleton said.

Tuscaloosa hasn’t seen a rise or decrease in any particular crime since the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We’re mostly just trying to enforce the 25 or over gathering rule right now,” Lt. Teena Richardson, the public information officer for Tuscaloosa Police Department, said.

Alabama is currently under a state-wide public health order that prohibits any gathering of 25 people or more or that cannot maintain a six-foot distance between individuals.

Chief Denham says right now their main priority is making sure their police force stays healthy in order to protect the public.

“Regardless what happens, we have to be out there interacting with the public and doing public safety things so that’s one of our biggest concerns is just keeping a healthy workforce,” Denham said.

As of Thursday afternoon, Alabama has 489 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one death as a result of the virus.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is also open 24/7 for calls and consultation at 1-800-799-SAFE or you can text LOVEIS to 22522.

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