SF domestic violence calls see 'dramatic spike' during shelter-in-place

SF domestic violence calls see 'dramatic spike' during shelter-in-placeThe mural on The Women's Building's facade. | Photo: Jasmine B./Yelp
Teresa Hammerl
Published on April 20, 2020

Increased time at home, layoffs, and financial worries have created a perfect storm for domestic abusers — and local organizations helping victims of domestic violence say they're seeing the fallout.

Calls to W.O.M.A.N., Inc.'s support hotline have seen "a dramatic spike" since the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order began last month, educational development manager Alicia Campos-Padillapaz tells Hoodline.

Many are from family members or friends asking what they can do to help victims, as financial worries and long hours at home feed a "fire that was already present to begin with."

The rise in domestic violence in San Francisco has been particularly notable, given the decrease in other types of crimes under the March 16 shelter-in-place order.

According to city data released earlier this month, 911 calls have been down 25% compared to 2019, but domestic violence calls in the same period rose 2.5%. The city recently launched a text-to-911 program targeted at abuse victims, which may draw in more cases that were previously hidden from view.

"Families are under extreme stress," said Lilli Milton, director of programs at the Mission's Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP). Her organization serves 3,500 homeless and low-income families annually, many of whom are increasingly worried about layoffs, lost income and the inability to afford basic needs like groceries. 

When the heat gets turned up, violence is often the result, Milton said. By providing families with critical resources like food, diapers and formula, "we are trying to reduce the tension."

With victims unable to stay away from abusive partners at home, essential trips like going for a walk or to the grocery store become rare opportunities to reach HPP by phone. That means case managers have to make fast, real-time assessments of who to help first.

Others receive guidance as to how to address sudden escalations of violence at home, Milton said. "It's safety planning."

Those currently living with an abuser aren't the only ones under stress. For survivors, the current period of isolation can be triggering, causing PTSD, depression or anxiety to flare up.

W.O.M.A.N.'s clients have been reaching out to each other during shelter-in-place, to make sure everyone is coping.

"Domestic violence survivors are extremely resilient and are looking out for each other," Campos-Padillapaz said, noting that her organization's statewide support group has moved online.

For survivors struggling with mental health, Campos-Padillapaz recommends coming up with a safety word with a neighbor or friend who can check in on a regular basis. (Check-ins can be casual — just a short text sending an inside joke or a meme can help.) Milton also recommends keeping contact with a support network, like doctors or teachers.

In many cases, Campos-Padillapaz says, community support can ideally step up before police intervention is needed. "There is a lot of power in community."

The San Francisco Department of Public Health offers resources for victims and survivors of domestic violence. For critical situations, victims can now text 911 to avoid detection.

Both W.O.M.A.N. and the Homeless Prenatal Program are accepting monetary donations online. HPP is also in need of diapers, wipes and formula, which can be dropped off at its 2500 18th St. garage entrance on Fridays from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m.