This story is part of the series “Surging in Silence” by WPLN News contributor Natasha Senjanovic and is produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. It examines the effects of domestic and sexual violence in the pandemic in Memphis and Nashville.
Tracking intimate partner violence in Nashville is never easy. In the pandemic, it’s even harder to know just how dangerous conditions are behind closed doors.
Especially because most abuse hinges on isolating someone, emotionally and physically, from the outside world. That makes the pandemic ideal for abusers, says Diane Lance, who heads Nashville’s Family Safety Center.
“If your prey are in your home,” says Lance, “this is a dream come true.”
Lance calls the Family Safety Center a “superstore” of free services for victims, which range from legal and police aid, to counseling and help finding a shelter, food or even diapers.
Lance says being trapped at home with an abusive partner or spouse isn’t the only danger right now. If there’s a gun in that home, female victims are eight times more likely to be killed. And during the pandemic, gun purchases have soared. Yet a Johns Hopkins study showed that firearms are only the second-highest risk factor of domestic homicide.
“Actually, the very highest is when the offender’s unemployed,” says Lance, for the instability and stress it brings. “So here we have a really high unemployment rate.”
Thankfully, despite Tennessee’s already high rate of women killed by their partners, domestic homicides are down this year in Nashville.
But domestic violence is not. Last year, the Family Safety Center saw around 7,000 clients, ranging from children to the elderly. This year, that’s just how many have sought help over the phone. Another 2,500 have come in person, says Lance, many of them fleeing dire intimate partner violence and fears of being killed.
What she is seeing among those clients are significantly more severe injuries, like “strangulations, use of weapons such as knives and guns, and things that cause deeper injury.”
So-called deep injuries can indicate late-stage abuse, because it usually takes several attempts to leave an abusive relationship for good. And the violence typically escalates over time. Even more quickly under stressful conditions.
This spring, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston saw almost twice as many deep injuries caused by intimate partners, compared to the previous three years combined.
Tyler Barrett, director of Vanderbilt’s Emergency Department, says their social workers are also seeing more domestic violence patients. “At least anecdotally,” he says, "based on their experience, our numbers have definitely increased.”
Ashamed, Afraid or Financially Dependent
Barrett says they have all kinds of data on COVID, since they’re the region’s main treatment center, but not on all of its secondary medical effects, like domestic abuse injuries. Yet in his experience, with intimate partner violence, “it’s always been really challenging to truly capture the extent of the problem.”
Victims may not come forward because they’re ashamed, afraid, or may be financially dependent on the abuser. Pressing charges or even just calling the police can spark more violence. And if a victim has to flee, they may not know where to go or if they’ll ever return home.
In a pandemic, when group settings should be avoided, those decisions are scarier than ever.
Sharon Roberson, president and CEO of the YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, knows this better than most.
“Some people do not want to leave because they don’t know what a shelter is like,” she says.
The YWCA runs the Weaver Center, the area’s largest domestic violence shelter, which she likens to a “very nice apartment building” that is welcoming and, most importantly, safe.
There are units for families and individuals, and clients do share rooms sometimes, but Roberson says they’ve been strict about COVID containment measures since early on in the pandemic.
“We’ve had a mask mandate before anyone ever understood what that was, for both the staff and the clients.”
Roberson says they’re also constantly sanitizing, and relying more on hotels. Those are typically used only for male victims, but they’ve sent some women and children to them this year, in order to have space for quarantining, if necessary.
She says they haven’t had a single case of coronavirus at the 65-bed shelter. Yet Roberson knows some abusers are weaponizing COVID, telling victims, “You go there with your kids, you’ll all die. That’s a nasty place. It will kill you all." Anything that could be used to create self-doubt.
Rise in Aggravated Assaults
Like Lance, Roberson has also seen more severe injuries this year, compared to 2019.
As have Nashville police. Records obtained by WPLN News show a roughly 10% increase in aggravated assaults related to domestic violence. From March to July, they received more than 10,000 domestic violence calls.
But that’s actually the same as last year, whereas the YWCA’s crisis hotline has received a lot more calls. Some months, 30% more.
That doesn’t surprise Lance, who says, “A crisis call is really easy to make. COVID restrictions do not apply for that.”
The head of the Family Safety Center says some victims can’t call police because they can’t physically distance themselves from their abuser long enough, especially if they have no workplace to go to. But another reason is fear that police themselves may bring COVID into the home.
Lance thinks the hotline numbers may be the best indicator of the current situation.
“Thirty percent over is probably exactly where it should be for the abuse,” she says, “but those barriers are preventing them from calling the police.”
Already about one in four women and one in ten men experience some form of intimate partner violence, according to the CDC. And only about half of all incidents are reported to police. Lance, Roberson and other advocates fear they won’t know the true damage of the pandemic until long after it has ended.
Important information for seeking help:
YWCA's 24-hour Crisis & Support Helpline can be reached by phone at 1-800-334-4628 or via text message to 615-983-5170.
The Family Safety Center: 610 Murfreesboro Pike, 615-880-1100. Clients can visit the center Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached via chat at thehotline.org, by calling 800-799-SAFE (7233) or by TTY at 800-787-3224.
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