As domestic violence continues to escalate during the novel coronavirus pandemic, Houston and Texas leaders are taking action to support efforts to save victims’ lives.
Reports of aggravated family assaults increased by 158 percent in Harris County from February to March, when Houstonians began to self-quarantine to slow the spread of COVID-19, according to law-enforcement officials.
In March, deputies responded to a total of 1,558 reports of domestic violence, according to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Calls to the Houston Area Women’s Center emergency hotline have increased by 40 percent since the pandemic, according to its President and CEO Emilee Dawn Whitehurst. Of those calls, a higher percentage than usual have been requests for emergency shelter, said Whitehurst.
“They want a way out,” said Whitehurst. “We can’t let innocent women die.”
The City of Houston announced Tuesday it is partnering with advocacy groups and law-enforcement agencies to provide more resources to victims. The new partnership has launched a city-wide awareness initiative to reach vulnerable populations and provide resources for victims, as well as provide hotel vouchers to shelters at capacity. A new website, nocovidabuse.org, compiles resources for victims and those who are concerned about their safety. And 750,000 fliers will be distributed in English and Spanish to help educate the public about domestic violence.
“COVID-19’s impact is being felt most by those who are vulnerable, including victims of domestic violence and human trafficking,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner at a press conference. “We know reports of violence have increased as victims are homebound with their abusers. We’re working to keep everyone safe with social distancing, but we recognize that home is not always safe for everyone.”
A $50,000 grant from Uber will help fund the effort. The ride share company also said it would provide free rides to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking in an effort to help those in danger more easily leave an abusive home.
At the state level, Gov. Greg Abbott’s office moved to make a one-time emergency waiver of a requirement that advocacy organizations that receive federal grants contribute up to 25 percent of their own funds back to the federal programs. The waiver will provide relief to 600 Texas organizations in Texas that receive grants from the federal Violence Against Women Act, allowing them to use their funding to address more pressing needs posed by COVID-19.
“Domestic violence agencies can now move forward with confidence that their live-saving services do not hinge on this administrative requirement,” said Texas Council on Family Violence CEO Gloria Aguilera Terry.
The nonprofit, which works with a network of advocacy groups in Texas, recently held a meeting with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and 14 other advocacy groups to address what agencies need to meet growing demands for service. After consulting with advocates, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (TX-10) wrote to Vice President Mike Pence to request he encourage America’s hotels to open rooms for victims who need shelter.
The increase in family violence has been seen all over the world since COVID-19. The U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said there has been “a horrifying global surge in domestic violence.”
Before the pandemic, Houston had a higher rate of intimate partner killings than the national average. After Hurricane Harvey, there was a 45 percent increase in fatal domestic violence in counties impacted by flooding. Advocates said they knew the pandemic would spur an uptick in violence and prepared for it with lessons learned from the last disaster that upended life in Houston.
“We’re doing something different this time because we know better,” Whitehurst said of officials’ response to the COVID-19 spike.
Whitehurst addressed victims directly during Tuesday’s press conference, ensuring them that they have a safe place to go.
“We know that you may be living in a silent hell and we want you to know that we’re here for you,” said Whitehurst. “Our shelter is open and our dedicated team of counselors and advocates are here for you.”
Shelters are following CDC guidelines and practicing social distancing, she said. Administrators are checking staff and residents’ temperatures, cleaning regularly and using masks.
Advocates fear there has been underreporting of domestic violence, despite the increase in calls. Challenges like a lack of privacy, no contact with people who would see signs of abuse and no access to communication channels may prevent victims from getting help.
“If you’re in an abusive situation, I want you to plan for your safety,” she said. “It can save your life and your children’s lives.”