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SALT LAKE CITY — When Utah went into lockdown last year, a spike in calls to police and the state's domestic violence hotline pointed to an uptick in abuse.
A year later, a new report confirms the troubling upward trend on a national level, finding that instances of domestic violence increased 8.1% after stay-at-home orders took effect and as shelters and other service providers rushed to adapt.
"This pandemic had all of the elements that advocates fear, all coming at one time," said Erin Jemison, a co-author of the report and the former director of public policy at the YWCA Utah. "This report serves to show, yep, there was more outreach. People were asking for help more. And that's probably just so little of what was actually happening that we don't even know yet."
The February report comes from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, a group of judges, law enforcers, researchers and others that includes former U.S. attorneys general Alberto Gonzales and Loretta Lynch.
The report notes that coronavirus outbreaks confined parents and children in their homes, cutting them off from friends, neighbors, co-workers and others who might typically have intervened or reported signs of abuse to authorities.
"We need to realize that domestic violence thrives as people are isolated," Jemison said.
At the same time, virus precautions have limited shelter capacity across the state, so Utah's network of nonprofits serving victims has gotten creative, finding other places for families to stay and holding virtual counseling sessions. Federal stimulus funds helped cover the costs of hotel rooms for those shelters that can't accommodate, but the need is wearing on the group's employees and their budgets.
"We have not seen anything slow down," said Kristen Floyd, executive director at Davis County's Safe Harbor Crisis Center, which saw a 50% increase and helped roughly 2,400 people last year.
"It's not just about, 'Hey, we've had an uptick of clients,' but we've also been really challenged on how to serve that uptick in clients," Floyd said.
To help get food to those staying somewhere other than the shelter, Floyd tapped a Syracuse catering company to bring them meals. Her nonprofit has also instituted a wellness program to help employees develop coping strategies for the trauma they take on in assisting clients.
Abuse isn't only more frequent, Floyd said, but more severe. Those who have sought help in the last year have been at greater risk of homicide if they stay than in the past, she said — a finding based on a questionnaire known as a lethality assessment protocol.
The combination of significant time at home, financial strain due to loss of work and the stresses of child care and homeschooling has likely exacerbated the risks, according to the report. So have abusers who turn to alcohol or drugs to cope.
The review also notes, however, that "the rise in reported violence might also reflect an increase in the proportion of victims who decide to seek criminal justice interventions."
The new analysis considered data from 12 prior studies in the U.S., including one that reviewed numbers from Salt Lake City. Researchers relied on rates of hotline calls, emergency room visits and police calls for service, among other sources.
They also looked at rates in other countries, finding a slightly smaller increase of 7.9% internationally.
Women are out of work at a greater rate in the pandemic, another factor that doesn't bode well for those at risk of abuse, Jemison said. A regular paycheck allows many to stay financially independent from an abuser.
"I'm waving this report around, saying, 'We are at the beginning of this crisis,'" Jemison said. "I have yet to meet a mom in an abusive situation who chooses starving her kids in order to be safe from her abuser. She will put herself in harm's way every time in order to put food on the table."
Calls to Utah's domestic violence hotline in the pandemic have risen by 25% to 50% across the state, said Liz Sollis with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. And many of those who needed help sought shelter for longer than in the past.
Delays in the court system haven't helped. The pandemic has paused trials, giving some defendants more time to violate no-contact orders. It's also pushed back divorce proceedings, further stressing unhealthy relationships, Sollis said.
"It's been a hard year," she said. "I think the one thing that has been reassuring throughout the pandemic is that people are calling for help and that is good, because that indicates to us that they know the resources are there for them and that they have found a way to connect with them."
Jemison and her colleagues said follow-up research is needed. They recommended additional resources for domestic abuse prevention and victim services, especially for marginalized groups and those likely to be more isolated during the pandemic, like older adults, as well as women and children victimized in the past, and those with ongoing mental illness and chronic health conditions.
Domestic violence resources
Help for people in abusive relationships can be found by contacting: