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NYC coronavirus lockdown led to sharp rise in domestic violence, data shows

Written by on July 27, 2020

At the height of New York’s coronavirus lockdown, domestic violence in the five boroughs skyrocketed, data show.

When the pandemic first laid siege, experts predicted that mandatory lockdowns and soaring unemployment would cause a rise in household abuse, and figures now bear them out — with domestic-violence reports at some agencies doubling and even tripling in the past few months.

“We’ve never been busier,’’ lamented Nechama Bakst, senior director of the Met Council’s family-violence program.

“We have seen people who never experienced violence starting to experience violence, and people who have experienced violence experience worse violence.’’

Typically, the non-profit gets about 70 new cases a month — but in April, they juggled 135, another 145 in May and 146 more in June, the organization said.

“We see more choking, more sexual violence, kind of much more intense and serious acts of crime,’’ the director said.

At Sanctuary for Families, which also works with survivors, there was a similar increase in calls to its helpline.

In May, the group received 206 calls, compared to 102 for the month the year before. In June, calls more than tripled, with 259 compared to 73 last year.

“Domestic violence is fundamentally about power and control,” said Dorchen Leidholdt, director of SFF’s Legal Center. “The coronavirus pandemic gave abusers a powerful tool of control because their victims were in much closer proximity to them, 24/7 in many cases, and had less access to sources of support and assistance.’’

In many cases, the pandemic became just one more tool in a perpetrator’s arsenal, experts said.

Some abusers would withhold personal protective equipment from their victims so it wouldn’t be safe to leave home. In other cases, if an abuser ended up catching the coronavirus, they would shame and blame their partner for it or become physically violent, advocates said.

Some would also refuse to social distance or wash their hands — and then “taunt” their victims about it in a way that made them “feel unsafe,” Bakst said.

Dorchen Leidholdt, director of Sanctuary for Families.Dorchen Leidholdt, director of Sanctuary for Families.James Keivom / NYPost

One abuser warned a victim, “You better watch your back … because the courts are closed, so you can’t do anything,” said SFF — which helped the person in need get an order of protection.

High unemployment brought on by the virus only compounded the situation because abusers are more physically violent — and likely to kill — when they’re out of work, experts said.

“It was a twin tsunami,’’ Leidholdt said. “On the one hand, abusers were unemployed, angry and more abusive than ever with more access to their victims than ever. … And then victims were more economically dependent than ever before.’’

Amid the lockdowns, the abused were trapped inside with their perpetrators all day, forcing some to hide in their bathrooms in the dead of night so they could whisper frantic pleas for help into their phones as their abusers slept, said David Greenfield, the Met Council’s CEO.

In response, both the SFF and Met Council created a text-based helpline for victims, which was a much safer way to communicate.

The experts noted that the most dangerous moment for a victim is when they’re trying to leave their abuser, which is why most escapes are carried out when the attackers are out of the house.

With coronavirus stay-at-home orders in place, fleeing became more difficult and thus more dangerous — making “situations that are already bad … exponentially worse,” Greenfield told The Post.

In one case, a woman and her children were in a “highly, highly dangerous” situation with an abuser who kept weapons in the home, Bakst said.

The torment against the victims escalated amid the pandemic, and the woman asked the Met Council for help getting her and her kids out.

“We figured out a time of day, it was literally 15 minutes that she had where she was not being watched,” Bakst recalled.

“And in those 15 minutes, we coordinated a way to get her to a place where she can get out and get to safety.”

Still, for many victims, reaching out is never easy — and became even harder amid the pandemic, advocates said.

There was one woman who said she was too scared to call 911 because she was concerned police officers would give her coronavirus, Bakst said.

“Seeking help outside the home was more difficult than ever because the courts were operating virtually, there was a period when the NYPD was dealing with its own coronavirus crisis, and we did not see the same level of responsiveness when a survivor called 911,” Leidholdt added.

“The only way to get help is the telephone, and using a telephone when you’re in close quarters with an abuser [is nearly impossible].”

When victims did get a chance to call for help, they used “codes” devised with their case worker to discreetly communicate whether the offender was around.

“If someone starts giving us directions to the mall, that was code for, like, ‘I gotta go’ without saying ‘I gotta go, he’s here,’ ” Bakst explained.

Met Council CEO & Executive Director David GreenfieldMet Council CEO & Executive Director David GreenfieldJames Keivom / NYPost

“For some people it’s ‘I got to put dinner in the oven’ — and that means to the social worker, ‘FYI he’s here.’ ”

For abusers used to targeting vulnerable people, a global pandemic perfectly set the stage for increased exploitation, Leidholdt said.

“Abusers tend to be serial perpetrators. They seek out vulnerable victims and take advantage of victim’s vulnerability, and the coronavirus pandemic significantly increased the vulnerability of women and children in particular in New York City,” she said.

“It increased their vulnerability economically, it increased their vulnerability in terms of public health, it increased their vulnerability in what is a really very terrifying environment where venturing out unprotected can lead to illness and even death,” the advocate went on.

“Abusers take advantage of those kinds of situations, they use them, and they exploit them to increase their power and control over victims.”

At times, Leidholdt and her team found themselves “fairly overwhelmed by the need” of domestic violence survivors amid the pandemic, she said.

“Even though we had the help of eight large law firms, we got more calls and clients in need of assistance than in key moments we were able to assist,” Leidholdt recalled.

Ultimately, no one was turned away, but the nonprofit gets “many more referrals” than they have the capacity to assist, shining a light on the need for increased services for domestic violence victims, staff said.

The coronavirus pandemic has plunged the Big Apple billions of dollars into the red, and many programs for domestic violence survivors have been cut in the FY2021 budget, fiscal reports show. The cuts include programs that support survivors post-victimization and funding for various district attorney’s offices that allow for improved prosecution, even as crimes related to domestic violence such as murder, rape and assault have increased, reports show.

Funding for domestic violence programs under the Human Resources Administration was cut by nearly $1 million, the biggest decrease it has faced in years, reports show.

While Leidholdt said the cuts could’ve been a lot worse, funding wasn’t enough even before the pandemic.

“Certainly this isn’t new, but we see it more during the time of the coronavirus pandemic. There is a much greater need for legal services, for clinical services, for economic empowerment services and for shelter services than currently exists. For all of these services, there are wait lists,” Leidholdt said.

“The sad reality is, they are not remotely adequate.”

Additional reporting by Nolan Hicks

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