When safer at home isn’t

With domestic abuse rising, hotline calls increasing in complexity and people isolated more than ever due to COVID-19 precautions, advocates say it’s critical to stay connected to your neighbors.
Person cleaning a dish through a window in a disheveled home
This impactful illustration by Nicole Xu was included in the feature "When Safer at Home Isn't."(January 2021)
Illustration by Nicole Xu

TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains details about domestic violence.

LINES OF SUPPORT: Domestic Abuse Intervention Services’ free and anonymous help line is 608-251-4445 or 800-747-4045. UNIDOS offers a Spanish-speaking 24/7 domestic violence help line (24/7 linea de ayuda): 800-510-9195.

We meet in an undisclosed location, separated by distance and masks, just three of us – me, a legal advocate and a domestic violence victim whose situation became so untenable during the COVID-19 pandemic that she is finally divorcing her perpetrator. She’s still in the thick of it, but she wants to tell her story. We, first and foremost, want her safe.

We’ll call her Sam. We won’t describe what she looks like, where she grew up or works. We’ll strip all identifying details because she is still unsafe physically, emotionally and legally. The remaining details were chosen because they’re all too common, and therefore sadly anonymous. Although every relationship is unique, most domestic violence situations have similar power dynamics, legally recognized red flags and an escalating trajectory. That escalation is what experts fear as we enter the long, cold winter of this pandemic and the uncertainties of the coming year.

In Dane County, Domestic Abuse Intervention Services’ free and anonymous help line fields 15,000 calls every year — but during Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order from mid-March through May, help line calls sharply dropped. Shannon Barry, the executive director of DAIS, speculates that victims were stuck home with perpetrators, and therefore unable to safely make those calls. DAIS also operates the county’s only battered person’s shelter, and in March — the month the Safer at Home order took effect — only 33 callers completed shelter assessments, less than half the number of completed assessments in January. But by July, as many Wisconsin businesses reopened and more people left their homes, that number nearly tripled to 92 — the highest all year.

Meanwhile, calls to UNIDOS, Wisconsin’s only Spanish-speaking 24/7 domestic violence help line that primarily serves Dane County, skyrocketed from 800 in all of 2019 to 1,989 calls by the end of September 2020, executive director Veronica Figueroa says. Kabzuag Vaj, founder of Freedom Inc., which advocates for Black and Southeast Asian victims of gender-based violence, says the pandemic highlighted disparities victims already suffered — but without the ability to check on victims at work or school, they became more isolated, so even more vulnerable. “Domestic violence doesn’t stop just because there’s a pandemic,” Vaj says. “And with the stress levels, we’ve seen that it’s gotten even worse.”

Since the pandemic started, every factor that contributes to domestic violence has been aggravated. People are stressed, stir-crazy and hungry. They’re losing their jobs and housing. Substance abuse and suicide attempts are up, and organizations that administer help are trying to do more with less, due to their own COVID-19 restrictions. Intimate partner violence including rape and stalking was already its own epidemic experienced by 32.4% of Wisconsin women and 23% of Wisconsin men in their lifetimes, although female victims sustain injuries three times more often than male victims. You may not know this particular Sam, but you do know a Sam.

Sam is still processing. She’s still making sense of the past several years of her life, because leaving doesn’t happen overnight, nor is it linear. Even in better days it takes the average victim seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship for a breadth of complex reasons spanning money, housing, children, employment, transportation, physical and mental health, trauma, isolation, cultural traditions, family dynamics, distrust of systems, legitimate fear and — arguably most powerful — love. Perpetrators are not random monsters, they’re your person. Relationships rarely begin from a place of abuse. Often the opposite is true: they start with a passionate love affair that feels romantic, until it doesn’t.

Sam and her future husband met as teenagers. They started dating when she was 18, married in her 20s and started a family. The best friends did everything together — hiking, camping, shopping, movies, ice cream at the Memorial Union, hanging out at the farmers’ market. Looking back, maybe he was a little jealous. A little overprotective. Maybe he questioned some of her friendships. But mostly, that felt good.

But about nine years ago he started drinking too much. Suddenly he was quicker to anger, more controlling. He began sexually assaulting her. Seven years into their marriage, he had an affair.

“He had like a midlife crisis,” she says, the bafflement still clear in her voice. “He changed. He wasn’t the person I fell in love with. It was like night and day.”

Jealousy turned to obsession. He began calling her at work, checking her phone, tracking her every move. He called her terrible, unspeakable names and mistreated her in front of their kids. He took the kids across state lines without telling her where they were or how long they’d be gone. Soon he was threatening her with sharp words, then sharp objects.

Sam wanted help but couldn’t imagine asking for it, or even what to ask for. She only knew she wanted the abuse to stop, and the man she knew and loved to come back. She wishes now that her friends, neighbors, co-workers or family would have noticed what she couldn’t say. Her anxiety, her jumpiness. The dark circles under her eyes, the lack of eye contact. Her constant excuses, always turning down invitations. Eventually, there was no one left to make excuses to.

“I felt like there were times that I just gave up,” she says, “and I was silent.”

She did call the police about a year after things first got bad, on a night he got physical. But he told the responding officers that she was the crazy one, and when she refused the ambulance ride — “I had to be tough for my kids” — the police declined to arrest him. This isn’t uncommon, for reasons as complex as why victims stay. Although Wisconsin has a mandatory arrest statute, it’s up to responding officers to determine whether a suspect’s acts constitute probable cause for domestic abuse. According to data requested from the Madison Police Department, from January through September 2020, of the 2,263 calls for domestic disturbances, only 455 arrests were made.

Sam wanted help but couldn’t imagine asking for it, or even what to ask for. She only knew she wanted the abuse to stop, and the man she knew and loved to come back.

Later, Sam quietly got herself to the hospital where she was connected with a DAIS advocate. It helped, but the four-year restraining order they sought was denied. A lot of that time period is a blur. Divorce papers were filed; she and the kids slept on her parents’ pullout bed and couch. But when he threatened her and her family’s lives if she didn’t call off the divorce, she felt she had no choice. She knew he had a gun (access to a gun makes it five times more likely that the abusive partner will kill his female victim, according to researchers, and more than half of Wisconsin’s domestic violence-related homicides are committed with firearms), and she knew he’d convinced everyone that she was the problem.

“I was scared, and I’d given up on the system,” she says. After she went back, and things got worse, that escape window seemed shut for good. “I began to live a life of more hell. I stayed in a loveless, crappy marriage with more harassment because I didn’t want something to happen to me and the kids. Because it felt like nobody was believing me, besides my parents and my doctor.”

In those dark years she lost her friends and had to ask permission to see her extended family. She worked 10- and 12-hour days, but he took her paychecks, issuing an allowance. If she earned more money than he did in a given year, he became enraged — but kept the tax refunds anyway. Her bras were held together with safety pins, she went three years without a haircut. She didn’t know that between 94% and 99% of domestic violence survivors also experience economic abuse, or that victims lose a total of 8 million days of paid work each year. She didn’t know that 76% of women murdered by an intimate partner were stalked first, or that 37% of stalking victims fulfill the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. All she knew was she felt trapped in every way.

“If I took a shower, he would want to be in the bathroom. He was everywhere,” she says. “I couldn’t breathe.”

Then came the pandemic.

When Sam learned he’d be working from home full time, that the kids would be learning from home, that they’d all be stuck together in a house that already felt like a prison, she felt panicked. He took her car keys and started driving her to work, even when he was drunk, because now he could drink during work hours. In March there was finally a witness to his threats, and he was arrested. As difficult as that was, finally being taken seriously awoke something in Sam. “It was the start of me starting to be strong again,” she says. She would need that strength for what came next.

Two months into the Safer at Home order, Sam’s husband was arrested again. It was a horrible night, the details too identifying to disclose here. But it resulted in the ambulance ride she’d refused before, and felony charges for him. She was granted the four-year restraining order denied years earlier. That night marked the end of her marriage, and the beginning of Sam’s long road out.

Sam’s worst night was likely one of nine domestic violence calls fielded by the Madison Police Department that May evening, by the law of averages. MPD tallied 280 domestic violence calls that month, resulting in 59 arrests. The Dane County Sheriff’s Office clocked another 43 domestic violence arrests in May. Overall in 2020, says Dane County Sheriff’s public information officer Elise Schaffer, domestic violence arrests are up 6.6% from 2019. The department has four specially trained detectives dedicated to domestic violence follow-up, but deputies also reach out to victims to offer case support, follow-up, community resources and safety planning options. Similarly, MPD’s Law Enforcement Advocate Partnership, or LEAP, referral program connects victims directly with services at DAIS, whether there’s an arrest or not.

But calls and arrests may not be the best measure of prevalence, as nearly half of domestic violence incidents are never reported to law enforcement in the first place, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“Most of the clients we see in our shelter program have either said they will not call law enforcement or they’ve had a poor interaction previously with law enforcement ,” says DAIS’ Barry, adding that MPD knows this and invests in DAIS by funding the LEAP program out of its own budget.

LEAP referrals trigger a confidential “reverse help line call” in which DAIS advocates make contact with a victim up to three times, instead of relying on traumatized victims to act on the business cards officers leave behind. DAIS does not report back any information to MPD, and victims are empowered to use any of DAIS’ free and confidential wraparound services, which encompass not only the help line and shelter but also legal advocacy and case management services; primary prevention and children’s programming; and support groups. DAIS serves roughly 1,500 to 2,000 unduplicated people face-to-face each year. Barry says LEAP has been successful: MPD referred 563 victims to DAIS in the first eight months of 2020, and Barry says around 85% opted into services. But many victims will never call police in the first place, so community-based programs remain critical.

“We know that when people get connected to domestic violence services, like those offered by DAIS or UNIDOS or Freedom Inc., they have better safety outcomes. But now we’re in the midst of a pandemic and the worst economic depression in my tenure, which doesn’t look to have an end point,” Barry says, recalling the 2008 recession, when DAIS experienced a 107% increase in demand for shelter services.

Shannon Barry sitting in her office

Shannon Barry is the executive director of Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, or DAIS. The nonprofit’s free and anonymous help line (608-251-4445) fields 5,000 calls every year. Photo by Claire Ogunsola

Some victims can’t afford to wait. The shelter waitlist is prioritized by assessments that determine a lethality score, based on proven escalation markers including stalking, strangulation, access to a weapon and a batterer’s suicidal ideations. The higher a victim’s lethality score, the higher their place on a waitlist that changes daily.

When Barry and I spoke in September, 62 households were on the waitlist — up from pre-pandemic times, and further complicated by reduced capacity due to COVID-19 safety protocols that allow families to spread out and not share bathrooms. Four households on the list that day had just under the highest possible lethality score. Another 12 scores hovered close to the top.

“I get really worried when people hear about the waitlist [for the] shelter and assume that we have a waitlist for all services, because we don’t,” Barry stresses. All other DAIS services are readily available, including resources on the website that offer guidance approaching loved ones who may be victims. “I want people to know that domestic violence is on the rise, and I’m concerned that it’s going to continue to go up. Getting people connected to us, that’s the biggest thing.”

Although domestic violence crosses all socioeconomic lines, it’s typically those with fewer resources who seek shelter. DAIS, Freedom Inc. and UNIDOS leaders all say Madison’s lack of affordable housing is the biggest factor keeping victims trapped, and it’s only been made worse by the pandemic. Help line calls didn’t just increase after the Safer at Home order was lifted, they also became more complex. Victims describe more mental health issues, pandemic-related grief and more trauma compounded by nationwide social unrest and violence. Maybe the loss of loved ones they couldn’t visit or honor with funerals. Stress from having to usher kids through virtual learning while working from home themselves, like everyone else — but in homes that feel like war zones.

“We’re dealing with a highly traumatized population anyway, so those calls have gotten really difficult,” Barry says. “You have people in really desperate situations staying with their batterers longer because they don’t have income. They’re staying in these potentially lethal situations. That’s the thing that keeps me up at night. I’m really worried that it’s going to be 2021 when we start seeing potential increases in homicides again.”

All victims are welcome at DAIS, which prioritizes diverse hiring and offers bilingual services but is still, as Barry puts it, based on a service model developed by white feminists 50 years ago. It’s impossible to understate the impact of representation — to receive help from someone who looks like you, someone who’s been where you’ve been. UNIDOS and Freedom Inc. both provide culturally specific resources that may offer a better fit for some victims and survivors. They also happen to be populations hardest hit by the pandemic.

“Our call volume has increased horrendously,” says Figueroa of UNIDOS, which has an open door policy but primarily serves Spanish-speaking families. “Right now the biggest thing is housing and being able to keep survivors in their homes.”

Although rates of domestic violence in the Latinx community are about the same as in other communities (1 in 12 in the last 12 months, according to the 2017 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey), they may be less likely to report it — nearly half of Latinas in one New Jersey study did not report abuse to authorities. Calling the police is out of the question for many victims served by UNIDOS, because mandatory arrest could mean loss of income and potential eviction in an already impossible rental market. Then there’s the fear of contracting COVID-19 itself, or their loved one contracting it in jail, particularly if they lack health insurance. Many fear for their immigration status, which is often weaponized by abusive partners.

“Perpetrators will tell victims, you’re gonna get deported and I’m gonna keep the kids,” Figueroa says. “Or they’re going to deport both of us and take our children away. People think it’s just a phone call to immigration to say, ‘This person is here undocumented, come get them,’ but that’s not how things work. Also, victims of domestic violence are protected under the Violence Against Women Act.”

Like DAIS, UNIDOS helps undocumented victims obtain protective VAWA visas, as well as restraining orders and other legal assistance. UNIDOS is not a shelter program, but rather a statewide organization offering direct services while partnering with other community agencies to provide limited housing assistance and food assistance, crisis response and safety planning, and counseling and peer support. Many UNIDOS clients don’t speak English, or were already struggling to make ends meet before COVID-19. “Then you have this pandemic that isolates people from the world, and boom,” Figueroa says. “That’s where we are right now.”

Kabzuag Vaj in front of a Freedom Inc. sign

Kabzuag Vaj is the founder of Freedom Inc., which advocates for Black and Southeast Asian victims of gender-based violence. Photo by Claire Ogunsola

Similarly, Freedom Inc. serves a population unlikely to call the police for help — low- to no-income Black and Southeast Asian women, girls and LGBTQ+ people. These populations, particularly Black Americans, disproportionately suffer financial and health outcomes not only under the pandemic, but also because of rates of incarceration and police brutality highlighted by thousands of nationwide protests this year. Although Freedom Inc. may be better known for leading such protests, its primary programming for two decades has been supporting victims of domestic and sexual abuse. Interpersonal violence and systemic, state-sanctioned violence are inextricable, says Vaj, whose work was recognized by the White House during Domestic Violence Awareness Month in 2011.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that everything we do is around ending gender-based violence,” says Vaj, who started working with victims in 2000 and founded Freedom Inc. in 2003. M Adams came on as co-executive director in 2009. They say crisis intervention isn’t enough to end domestic violence. You have to hire from within the communities you serve to provide victims with basic needs and education and analysis around how we got here in the first place.

“For those of us who’ve been intimately serving and providing safety for victims and survivors for the last 20 years, we know that putting more money into policing is not going to help the victims and survivors who are coming forward,” Vaj says. “So if you’re going to put any more resources into policing, put it into teaching people who are abusive different ways of not being abusive.”

In response to their community’s increased isolation during the pandemic, Freedom Inc. ramped up food pantry efforts and made them mobile. The organization increased distribution of gas and grocery gift cards and transitioned in-person programs to Zoom meetings. Freedom Inc. was also tapped by the Tenant Resource Center to help distribute federal housing funds through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, which allowed them to include questions about safety at home for applicants seeking housing stipends.

“We started being really creative in the ways we were able to still check on people,” Vaj says. “People don’t see the direct services of the food pantry that we have, or helping people find housing, or crisis planning, or safety planning with victims, making sure that kids abused at home have somewhere to go. Then once you help them get out of danger and they’re in a safer place where they can actually breathe and think, how do you start to change their hearts and minds so that it doesn’t become this perpetual cycle of violence? That is the political education, and creating places where women and girls and queer folx and survivors and victims can come together and learn.”

UNIDOS staff have been distributing food cards and gas cards, too, many of which have been donated by community members. It’s appreciated and it’s helpful, but Figueroa says we can all do more.

“Right now you don’t know if your neighbor next door is going through something. We’re all in this mode of, ‘I don’t want to see anybody,’ this bubble trying to contain ourselves from getting sick, and we’re forgetting that other people are also trying to do the same but in a very different spot than we are, and probably suffering or getting hurt,” Figueroa says. “I think we need to bring back some sort of connection to be able to support victims of domestic violence and be informed. Know what’s going on, where to call for support, and how to connect people with services and resources out in your community.”

Veronica Figueroa

Veronica Figueroa is executive director of UNIDOS, which operates Dane County’s only Spanish-speaking 24/7 domestic violence help line: 800-510-9195. Photo by Claire Ogunsola

Sam had a neighbor who seemed to recognize her struggle enough to give her little gifts, like soap or perfume. It meant the world to her, to be seen like that, even if the neighbor didn’t know the full story. Those little moments added up, just like when she finally had a witness that led to her ex-husband’s first arrest. Sometimes she gets overwhelmed wondering how much sooner she could have gotten out if more people had recognized the signs. But there’s nothing productive about regret, and so she returns to the long road ahead.

The hardest part is learning how to live a “normal” life. “Getting used to having some freedom is good, but it’s also taking me some time to adjust. I can only handle being out for like three or four hours,” she says, likening it to service members returning from war, watching over her shoulder at work, jumping every time her phone rings. She’s learning it’s OK to spend money on clothes and personal items. “And it’s OK to have friends,” she says, in a tone that hints she is still trying to convince herself. She joined Facebook to reconnect with old friends and found out one had also experienced domestic violence. “It’s nice to know I’m not alone. I never realized how many people are going through this.”

The financial struggle remains intense, though food pantries and school lunch programs have helped. Before her divorce was finalized, her husband wiped out their bank accounts and kept their federal stimulus check. But now advocates help her navigate court and her ongoing safety plan. Each day brings new clarity and better understandings of old, toxic ways.

“I don’t know how I pulled through this. I still think it’s amazing that I’m alive,” she says, and that’s her primary reason for speaking out today. Part of it is that she was silenced for so long, and she hopes to speak out more in the future, when she’s safe. But the biggest piece for her is reaching other victims and, especially, their friends, families and loved ones. “I want people to pay attention,” she says. “Look for behavioral changes, if a person is stuttering, putting their head down, apologizing a lot. Look at somebody’s self-care.” She’s got a photograph of herself, one it pains her to look at. It’s all right there, she says: the shabby clothes, the defeat and fear on her face. “It really hurts to know I could have gotten out much sooner.”

Then she returns to a different image, one she visualizes when she gets scared or overwhelmed. It’s a diving board with a tall ladder, one she’s climbing, rung by rung.

“Eventually I’m going to get up to that diving board and I’m going to swim to freedom, to that finish line,” she says. “I’m not giving up this time, and that’s what I want people to know. Don’t give up. There’s hope.”

Maggie Ginsberg is a senior contributing writer to Madison Magazine.