COVID-19 and domestic violence

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I recall returning to my hometown of New Orleans in 2006, five months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August of 2005, and there was a consistent question that locals asked of each other when they met: “How did you fare during the storm?” I found a shared experience and concern for neighbors and strangers alike. In Alaska, I received the same concern as many friends, Alaskan family and fellow parishioners would ask me how my family was doing. It was comforting to know they had been paying attention and were concerned, especially for people they did not know.

Regionally and globally, we have endured many crises since then, and we find ourselves in one of those times with the current COVID-19 pandemic. One aspect that makes this crisis unique is its global impact combined with its unpredictability, making our approach to combatting it even more challenging.

Even though it is global and unpredictable for all of us, the way public health officials know how to mitigate the spread of the virus has a greater impact on the socially and economically vulnerable of our society. Of the many difficult things it has created is our inability to see the stranger and ask how they are or offer a hand, because we ourselves are isolated. Awareness of the plight of others even during times of isolation can still be done, but it requires more effort to seek and understand who is most impacted, what are the reasons why, and learn ways to help.

The vulnerable—whom we may not see because of our isolation as well as theirs–are the homeless, those who have no one to protect them, the poor, the unemployed and those who were already struggling with poverty, violence and illness. For some of us, public health mandates to mitigate the spread of the virus is inconvenient. For others, it is life-threatening and causes even more physical and emotional suffering.

For example, according to an Anchorage Daily News article in early May, The Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault released the results of a survey of 30 domestic violence shelter providers for the period from March 11 to April 24. They found an increase of 52% in hotline calls during that period compared to previous weeks. According to Diane Casto, the Council’s executive director, “Some regions of Alaska seem to be experiencing an uptick in demand or services while others are seeing a drop…. The Southcentral region, which includes Wasilla, Palmer and the Kenai Peninsula, reported a 63% increase in the demand for agency services. The Western region experienced a 50% increase. In contrast, Anchorage saw a 67% drop. That could reflect easier access to alternative resources in a larger city like Anchorage,” Casto said.

She also stated “The real picture of how stay-at-home orders have impacted domestic and sexual violence in Alaska won’t be truly understood until after communities begin opening up, people go back to work and victims can make reports and seek services again, without their perpetrator watching and limiting their movement and ability to reach out,” Castro said.

Also, the State of Alaska’s Office of Children’s Services provides information on their website, explaining that, “In times of crisis and economic insecurity, rates of child abuse and neglect increase. However, reports to child protective services have declined dramatically during the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.” OCS is asking adults, families, neighbors and essential workers serving families to be “the eyes and ears for kids and help keep them safe… You are essential to child safety during this time.”

I encourage everyone to learn more about how this virus and stay-at-home orders may be impacting our vulnerable and defenseless and the ways to help. The following websites provide information:

Office of Children’s Services – dhss.alaska.gov
alaskachildrenstrust.org
Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Department of Public Safety – dps.alaska.gov

As we all face our own unique challenges, I would like to conclude with the words that Dr. Anthony Fauci shared with graduates from his alma mater, Regis High School in New York:

“Currently, our lives have been upended by a truly historic global pandemic… However, please hang in there. We need you to be smart, strong and resilient. With discipline and empathy, we will all get through this together.”


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