The collateral victims of shelter-in-place
There can be no doubt that the measures taken to combat the coronavirus are disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable among us. At the top of the list are those for whom home is not a safe place to be.
Shelter-in-place is a “perfect storm” for victims of domestic abuse and controlling behaviour — being in a confined space with an abuser, with the added pressure of financial worries and uncertainty of the future, feeling trapped, causing anxiety and intense emotions.
This is all a recipe for the increased risk of violence in an environment that makes it much more difficult for victims to seek refuge and help.
The lockdown measures are particularly dangerous for the children of abusive relationships; they are more likely to witness or experience violence as long as they are stuck at home while access to trusted adults outside of the home is cut off. For some children, school is the only safe place to be.
Since the shelter-in-place restriction has come into force, the Centre Against Abuse has answered 89 calls to its hotline and assisted more than a dozen individuals in finding a safe place to live away from their abusers — one of which being referred to the Department of Child and Family Services. This shows a marked increase in the usual statistics.
Callers have included adult children of abusive and controlling parents; the police calling on behalf of a senior about an abusive, related caregiver; parents feeling at risk from harm from their adult children; as well as partners of domestic abuse.
Despite measures being put in place to protect vulnerable children and partners of abusers, the predominant message being repeated by the authorities, through our televisions and devices, is to “stay at home” — which communicates to victims that there is no way out.
The official updates on Covid-19 shelter-in-place provide lists for when we are allowed to leave home, including if you are an essential worker, you have a medical emergency or you need to purchase food or medicine.
The guidance does not expressly mention domestic abuse or violence and it does not mention that victims may leave home to access victims’ services or escape harm.
Such misunderstandings are likely to permeate to the public, to victims and to police.
Part of the problem is that the onus is on victims to explain themselves when they are found outside the home during lockdown or curfew hours.
People who take the brave step of leaving an abusive relationship are often not yet ready to acknowledge the truth to anyone, are still protecting their abusers, and so are even less likely to disclose that information to a police officer or person in authority.
If someone escaping an abusive situation is stopped by the police while out and asked to provide a reasonable excuse, they may not feel willing or able to provide details of the abuse in response. Friends and relatives will be nervous about welcoming victims into their homes, for fear of breaking the law.
The Bermuda Police Service website does not have any press releases or information to advise victims of domestic abuse what to do during the period that the shelter-in-place remains. It is likely, then, that many police officers are unaware of what to do if they are called out to domestic incidents during this time.
Reports that officers are suggesting going to a friend’s house for a few days as a “cooling-off” period after arguments at home suggest that it is acceptable only to move to a friend’s house rather than a shelter, and that victims must return home after several days of “cooling off”, regardless of how dangerous the situation may be at home.
For as long as the lockdown drags on, we need to do better to protect the collateral victims of this epidemic.
• The Centre Against Abuse operates a 24/7 hotline for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. The CAA’s hotline numbers are 297-8278 and 292-4366 and the email is email@example.com. Should anyone in the community have concerns about the welfare of a child, please contact the Department of Child and Family Services on 332-0091 or the on-call supervisor on 335-9095. If it is an emergency, please call 911. For issues concerning the elderly, you can call Ageing and Disability on 292-7802 or 278-4900. The Government’s shelter-in-place counselling hotline is 543-1111 and is open from 9am to 9pm every day
• Victoria Greening is an experienced criminal and public lawyer who is practising under her own name
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