Alaska domestic violence calls increase during COVID-19, fear of isolation rises

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Alaska’s domestic violence crisis lines are seeing a spike in calls during the COVID-19 pandemic and advocates are concerned about the impacts of isolation.

“There are some parts of the state that are experiencing a significant increase in calls,” said Suzi Pearson, the executive director of Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis (AWAIC).

The Anchorage shelter initially saw a dip in crisis calls in March. Pearson says that was likely because victims were hunkered down with their abusers and were unable to call for help.

“However, in the month of April, we saw a 31% increase in crisis calls compared to the previous year,” Pearson said.

A jump in crisis calls is being seen across Alaska. The Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault found that calls to hotlines statewide increased by 52% from mid-March until late-April.

Mandy Cole, the deputy director of AWARE, said the Juneau shelter had seen a similar jump in calls for help. AWARE is looking to increase staffing to cope with increased need.

“There could be a tendency to view increased calls as problematic,” Cole said. “But, I can tell you my staff is heartened to see survivors reaching out again in greater numbers.”

A rise in calls is coming at the same time that shelters have less capacity. The need for safe social distancing has seen AWAIC able to house 37 people, down from 52 available spots before the pandemic began.

COVID-19 is posing other challenges for domestic violence survivors, chief among them is isolation.

“I definitely understand that feeling of being stuck,” said Stlaay Cloud-Morrison, an Anchorage-based nurse who grew up in a household “riddled by domestic violence.”

Cloud-Morrison, a survivor herself, describes the feeling that there is no way out.

“Your feet are in cement,” she said. “It's a feeling of emptiness too, it's like you have no control over what's happening to your body or to your mind. It's very dehumanizing.”

Charlene Apok, the gender, justice and healing director at Native Movement, says that attempts to isolate someone from friends and family is a red flag for domestic violence. “Isolation is able to be maximized during a time when it’s mandated,” Apok said.

Native Movement reached out to the Anchorage Police Department as hunker down orders were issued to ensure welfare checks continued. There were fears they may stop if personal protective equipment (PPE) wasn’t widely available for police.

“And I really appreciate that they responded immediately,” Apok said. “They were supportive and said, ‘We will follow through on wellness checks.’”

Isolation manifests in other aspects of survivors’ stories during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Apok, an Iñupiat woman, said she was contacted by someone recently who reported that they were sexually assaulted and needed to go to the emergency room. Typically, a survivor would be accompanied to the hospital by an advocate. That hasn’t been possible during the pandemic.

The survivor Apok describes lives by themselves and hunkered down alone after being assaulted.

“How torturous it is on the mind to have to go through that,” Apok said. “Having to be isolated after that happening really messes with your mental health.”

“For people who experienced trauma during this time, it was that much more intense to have that layer of isolation, or barriers to resources that are so desperately needed already,” she added.

Apok, a survivor herself, said there had been one silver lining for domestic violence advocates during the crisis.

The Alaska Court System has temporarily moved to allow people to file for protective orders online, instead of seeing a notary in person to have signatures verified.

The hope is that the court system change could be permanent.

For Cloud-Morrison, the pain of domestic violence has lessened but it’s still there. “It never goes away and that's something that I had to learn through a lot of counseling and just self-reflection,” she said.

The goal now is to help others and make sure her son sees her do it. “Because I definitely broke cycles with him. So I want him to continue that momentum as he grows into a young adult.”

If you need help or know someone who needs help, call AWAIC’s 24-hour crisis and support Hotline: (907) 272-0100. You can also call or report online at the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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