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Chicago domestic violence calls up 18% in first weeks of coronavirus shutdown

Everyone is stuck at home and stressed out. For those living with an abuser, it can be even worse.

Carol Gall, executive director of Sarah’s Inn, at the domestic violence group’s emergency pantry. The coronavirus shutdown presents an “enormous challenge” for domestic abuse victims who are stuck at home with their abusers, Gall says.
Carol Gall, executive director of Sarah’s Inn, at the domestic violence group’s emergency pantry. The coronavirus shutdown presents an “enormous challenge” for domestic abuse victims who are stuck at home with their abusers, Gall says.
Annie Costabile / Sun-Times

Domestic violence calls are up in Chicago, with people cooped up at home and stressing over coronavirus and paying bills.

Comparing the period Feb. 21-March 8, before Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s first shelter-in-place order, with March 20-April 5, after Illinoisans were told largely to stay home, calls to the Chicago Police Department about domestic violence increased 18%.

That includes domestic battery, domestic disturbance and violations of orders of protection or child abuse.

During the period Feb. 21-March 8, the police got 7,870 domestic violence calls, and there were 9,298 such calls after the shutdown, according to Chicago police data. Both periods included three weekends.

For a year-to-year comparison, the Chicago Sun-Times looked at March 20-30 versus the same 10-day period in 2019 and found calls related to domestic disturbances and domestic battery were up about 7%. That’s according to data from the city’s Office of Emergency Management & Communications.

Organizations that aid domestic violence victims in Chicago and the suburbs have seen a similar jump in calls for help, says Amanda Pyron, executive director of The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence, formerly called the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network. The agency runs the toll-free Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline — 1 (877) 863-6338 — which operates 24 hours a day, taking calls and texts in English, Spanish and 240 other languages.

The hotline typically gets 50 or 60 calls a day. It got 104 calls on March 30 and 107 on April 13 — the highest daily numbers in the organization’s history, Pyron says, with large increases in Lake County and Kane County.

What’s different during the pandemic is that victims are trapped at home — where most domestic violence occurs. Many victims can’t get away by going to their workplace, a friend’s home or elsewhere.

“The health crisis is just adding an enormous challenge for victims who are living with their abusers,” says Carol Gall, executive director of Sarah’s Inn, a not-for-profit organization based in the near west suburbs that provides housing support, emergency financial support, counseling and legal help.

Abusers, under more stress these days, are taking it out on their partners, Gall says — and victims might be having a harder time deciding whether to stay or run because it’s tough to look for an apartment during the shelter-in-place order, and job situations might be shaky.

And children who normally would be at school or at after-school activities are stuck in a potentially explosive situation all day.

“Obviously, the shelter-in-place is needed,” Gall says. “But it creates a really unsafe environment for domestic violence.”

Some advocates worry about the calls that aren’t being placed.

“When you have the two parties cooped up together, that’s stressful enough, but then there’s no opportunity for someone to even call for help because they would do that when their abuser was at work, when he or she is not in the house,” says Rebecca Darr, president and chief executive officer of WINGS, a nonprofit provider of safe housing, counseling and mentoring based in the northwest suburbs. “If they’re never out of the house, then there’s no opportunity to call.”

Rebecca Darr, president and CEO of WINGS.
Rebecca Darr, president and CEO of WINGS.

WINGS usually can provide housing for about 275 people at locations, including two safe houses and in apartments and homes. But the need for social distancing has complicated that, according to Darr, who says some clients had to be moved to hotel rooms to make sure everyone had enough room to be safe during the pandemic.

“We had people who were still going to work, one of them in a grocery store, so the likelihood of her coming back into the house with having been exposed to the virus was too risky,” Darr says.

The Network heard from a woman who’d recently moved to her own apartment but then lost her job during the shutdown. She was anxiously awaiting her coronavirus stimulus check from the federal government to pay her rent. But her abuser had access to her bank account and took the money.

Experts say helping those who can’t leave their abuser often includes suggesting strategies to avoid triggers or defuse a dangerous situation. That could include informing neighbors or relatives to be on the lookout so they can call the police if help is needed and creating a code word for children so they know when to flee to another room.

With victims who are recent immigrants, the advice also includes making sure they have access to documents and passports for themselves and their kids, says Neha Gill, executive director of Apna Ghar, a Chicago nonprofit that helps with emergency and transitional housing, counseling and legal advocacy.

Neha Gill, executive director of Apna Ghar.
Neha Gill, executive director of Apna Ghar.