Abuse reports decreased at height of pandemic, but incidents continued

By Sahar Chmais

Numbers can be deceiving. The Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center (HCWC) observed this bitter truth during the heights of the pandemic that silenced the voice of many abuse victims.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, the number of people seeking housing and other help from the HCWC went down and the number of reported child-abuse cases decreased. That is not because sexual, physical and mental abuse was dissolving; rather, people were no longer reaching out for help because they were stunted by the fear of the coronavirus.

“We were just like, what is going on here,” said Melissa Rodriguez, director of community partnerships for HCWC. “There was concern for what people were going through; we know it was not that domestic violence went down, but people were experiencing it at home and could not go anywhere.”

Not only had incidents of violence remained, but Rodriguez said that during this time there might have been an uptick in violence. There are some people who were experiencing violence in their home or relationship for the first time because of the pandemic, Rodriguez said.

Many people who were already barely making ends meet found themselves jobless or in a much worse financial situation. This was one of the factors that led to more mental and financial abuse, Rodriguez explained.
Shortly after the pandemic hit, victims seeking help from all sectors of the HCWC decreased.

The crisis line answered 258 calls in March, but that number slowly increased; in June, they served 498 calls. This number dramatically dropped in July to 266, a time when the coronavirus had increased in Texas. These numbers bounced back a little in August to 334 calls, Rodriguez said, but the numbers for September are not yet calculated.

Temporary housing is another service in the HCWC that experienced a large dip in victims. Starting in March, the shelter was almost at capacity, housing 24 victims. In April, that number dropped to 10 and May brought only five people living at the shelter.

“That month with the five victims was the highest month with the crisis line calls,” Rodriguez explained the connection between the numbers. “People were calling, needing shelter. We had a lot of people approved to come in, but they did not. They were in fear of ‘am I making it worse?’ They stayed home to make sure they are safe from the virus.”

Despite the shelter’s successful effort at sanitizing, people were afraid of coming in and being around people they did not know, potentially contracting the coronavirus. Rodriguez said that no one at the shelter contracted COVID-19, but people were still afraid, especially victims with children.

In August, the numbers rose to 35 victims, but Rodriguez said that influx can be partially attributed to hurricane victims seeking shelter.

Children were not exempt from the trend. Generally, schools are the biggest reporters of child abuse, but when schools closed, the number of reports went down. Rodriguez said that even though HCWC saw a dip in child abuse reports, they never decreased as much as the numbers of those seeking shelter.

“We were worried about those kids who were staying in abusive homes,” Rodriguez said. “Knowing overall reports have decreased dramatically, but still wanting folks to know that it’s important to check in on the kids they know and report if they are concerned about their safety.”

The number of kids receiving the help they need is climbing back up. HCWC has an exam room for forensic medical exams that is being used now more than ever, which is not a good thing, according to Rodriguez , yet she is grateful they offer the resource.

Hospitalizations are another spot HCWC saw a shift in numbers. For the last two years, Rodriguez said they have seen an increase in hospitalizations for sexual and domestic abuse. But the numbers dropped to four hospitalized victims in March, three in April, six in May, and down to three in June. In July, there were only two reported hospitalizations, but similar to the previous trends, August had an increase in reports of eight victims.
Rodriguez expects these numbers to continue to rise now that universities have resumed their sessions. University abuse incidents tend to primarily have sexual assault victims and some dating violence, Rodriguez explained.

Overall, violence reports are increasing again, but that does not mean that everyone has access.

“Since things are seemingly settling down,” Rodriguez told the Hays Free Press/News Dispatch, “people are starting to feel safer and that they can come. It’s a challenge and I don’t think we can get to enough people. It doesn’t matter how much outreach we do; people will still not know where to go.”

Victims may know where to go for help but they are unsure if they should make that move. They may also fear the next step, unsure of what may happen after they move into a temporary shelter.

HCWC extends help not only to those in need of shelter; some instances, a victim needs counseling. Since the coronavirus has limited in-person access, HCWC has moved their counseling services by phone or through video.

“One of the best things we get to do is help people recover,” Rodriguez spoke about how she stays optimistic in her job, “that is a privilege. We can see them come in the worst case and help them leave at their best. It does make a difference.”

If you or someone know you is dealing with an abusive relationship, reach out to your local sources. The number for HCWC’s confidential crisis line is 512-396-HELP, or 800-700-HCWC.

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