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COVID-19: How Abusers Are Using the Virus Against Victims

The COVID-19 crisis has had a brutal impact on Denver residents for a wide variety of reasons. But among the most vile is the way that the virus has been twisted into an instrument of domestic terror.

"The pandemic itself is being used by some abusers in order to increase isolation for their victims and increase their level of fear," says Barbara Paradiso, executive director of the Center on Domestic Violence at the University of Colorado Denver. "Their message is, 'If you don't do what I want, I'll throw you out on the street and you'll get the virus and die in a gutter.'"

As Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen acknowledged during a recent Westword interview, ongoing concerns about domestic violence in all of its forms have been heightened since Governor Jared Polis issued a stay-at-home order, which currently runs through April 26.

"Survivors of domestic violence are essentially trapped at home with their abuser because of the stay-at-home order," Paradiso points out. "We're all staying at home to theoretically find safety, but when you're living with someone who's using violence to control their entire life, home isn't the safest place. And there's very little opportunity for reprieve. When tensions build in a family where violence is occurring, often there's a little relief when your partner goes off to work, or you go off to work, or you have the opportunity to visit family and friends. But because of this pandemic, those are no longer options."

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At his April 8 press conference, Polis raised the issue of violence in the home, stressing that help was still available and the stay-at-home order didn't mean that victims had to stay with those hurting them.

But abusers are telling a very different tale, according to Paradiso. She's hearing stories about them "passing along inaccurate information about the virus," all with the idea of reinforcing the idea that victims have no place to go — and if they try to escape, they'll die of a terrible disease.

These tactics are being used to ratchet up "the fear around reaching out for help and what a survivor's perceptions are," she continues. "Say there's an incident that leads to an injury. They wonder: Can they go to a hospital for help? And if they do, is the hospital a more dangerous place because that's where the coronavirus victims are?"

Paradiso worries that other factors related to COVID-19 can cause situations already teetering on the edge of violence to further deteriorate. "Stress certainly increases the potential for violence to escalate," she concedes. "We all experience stress on some level, and that doesn't necessarily create abusers. But an individual who already has a propensity to use violence or control, but who may have used emotional and verbal abuse in the past, may escalate to physical violence under these conditions."

She adds: "Domestic violence is rooted in power and control, and when we're living in an environment where none of us feels we have a tremendous amount of control — where we don't know when we'll be able to leave our homes or if we'll contract the disease, and what the outcome will be — there are lots of unknowns. That's a very different place for an abuser to be, and when there's a greater sense about a loss of control, with people losing their jobs and not knowing if they have the money to pay their mortgage or their rent, that creates a lot of challenges."

Even the ability "to talk to someone face to face, or even to be able to reach out by phone" is more difficult under these circumstances, Paradiso emphasizes. "With abusers in the house all the time hovering over them, it's hard to find a way to make a phone call to a crisis line or a police department or even a friend for support, to work through whatever their feelings or thoughts are around the violence they're experiencing."

As a result, Paradiso sees it as critically important that direct-service organizations such as the Rose Andom Center, with which the Denver Police Department partners, remain open and fully staffed throughout the ongoing outbreak. Additionally, "there's an emergency pot of funding that is managed by COVA, the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance, and one of the steps they've taken is to loosen requirements around eligiblity for those funds, so domestic-violence shelter programs can apply for them in order to pay for hotel housing for victims, for example," she notes.

During the pandemic, Paradiso says, she and fellow advocates are working overtime to "get the word out and encourage victims — to let them know there are people willing to help them, and that the avenues for access and assistance, including law enforcement, are still responding to domestic-violence cases and taking them very seriously."

The National Domestic Violence Hotline number is 800-799-7233.

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