ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4 News) — Domestic violence and sexual assault advocates in southern Utah say they saw a delayed request for services when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, but the demand has since been skyrocketing, beginning in June when coronavirus cases grew exponentially in the area. In the past five days, 13 people have been arrested on suspicion of domestic violence in Washington County.
“For survivors, there was so much uncertainty about the pandemic that many probably chose the more familiar or what appeared to be the lesser of two evils in a situation that wasn’t good,” executive director of DOVE Center Lindsey Boyer said. “Our numbers were much lower than average from March through May. Then June hit, and everything started reaching above our normal lines.”
St. George’s DOVE Center, the only victims’ services agency in the area available 24 hours each day to support domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, said their hotline calls were “fairly low” in February through May but increased by 50% in June and then another 10% in July.
“It has a lot to do with the power of isolation. If the abuser is able to keep the victim isolated and cut off from contacts from their healthy support networks and resources, then there is a much greater hold on the situation and easier path to maintaining control,” Boyer said. “Unfortunately, when we were all recommended to stay home, those family tensions started rising and, on top of that, people are getting hours cut or businesses are having to shut down. These are incredible stressors, and with domestic violence, a loss of employment is a high-risk factor for lethality.”
According to DOVE Center, risk of lethality calls spiked 30% higher in June than they had been all year. In all incidences of intimate partner violence, law enforcement and first responders use the Lethality Assessment Protocol (LAP) to identify domestic violence survivors who are deemed to be at high risk of being murdered by their abusers. High-risk survivors are encouraged to speak with a community-based victim service provider who can encourage services such as crisis counseling, legal advocacy, and shelter.
“I think it’s probably that point of the cycle of violence when things are business as usual and then tensions start to build. You have that explosive phase before things calm again, and it’s cyclical,” Boyer said. “You’re hanging on through that tension building phase, almost anticipating that if you can just get through it, then you can have a period of calm again; but, with the pandemic, it’s followed by more uncertainty.”
Requests for shelter were high in March, although they included several non-victim callers as more people began experiencing homelessness in general. Requests then dropped in April and May but spiked even higher in June and July. July totals were approximately 60% higher than average, according to the agency. The number of households served with shelter more than doubled from May to June and then increased another 25% in July.
In addition, requests for court and protection order assistance has started going back up as of July, officials said. Requests for sexual assault advocacy services more than doubled in June, including hospital advocacy requests. Next week, DOVE Center advocates will be returning to Dixie Regional Medical Center to provide sexual assault advocacy support to survivors in person.
DOVE Center leaders say that a lot of survivors experiencing abuse don’t see their value, so to have them shift from recognizing they are in an unhealthy, toxic, and abusive relationships to deciding they deserve better, it’s a “big jump.”
“Oftentimes, the best way we see that jump happen quickly is in support groups when you have someone telling a story and others listening and recognizing that it’s theirs,” Boyer said. “Then they can hear that person who’s progressed and wants out of the cycle. People deserve to be safe and be respected and be in a healthy, equal relationship.”
When the pandemic hit, services like crisis advocacy and counseling became virtual at the agency and all support groups were postponed until some moved online in late June, including financial assistance and English and Spanish counseling groups. The DOVE Center is still waiting to bring back their teens and kids groups, which may not be reinstated until advocates and children would be able to meet in person.
If you need help or additional information, please call DOVE Center’s 24-hour helpline: (435) 628-0458.