On a recent shift with the Day One Crisis help line, Ellen Gormican took repeated calls from a woman in a car with her children. They were seeking shelter, but there were no beds available when Gormican checked that evening.
People call the state helpline for domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking in the mornings looking for shelters. Gormican doesn't know whether the caller found a place to stay that night, and she said it's one of the frustrating things about a lack of resources for victims. That is magnified by the isolation and disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak and response.
"I think it just really highlights how little you can offer people who are in violent situations, and that's really disheartening," Gormican said.
The United Nations on Monday urged countries to find ways to stop the "horrifying global surge in domestic violence" linked to lockdowns during the pandemic. The prospect of prolonged social distancing and isolation is putting people in physically and emotionally abusive situations — including people in relationships, children and the elderly — at risk of being trapped with their abusers and unable to seek help to escape, advocates say.
Gov. Tim Walz said in a news conference call last week that there are "dark sides" of the pandemic that state officials need to educate the public about, including domestic violence. Walz's stay-at-home order gives an exception for people who need to leave their homes because of unsafe circumstances.
"Obviously I can say it, and can't stress enough, you do not need to stay in your home in a dangerous situation," Walz said. "There are places of sanctuary for you to get out of that, but these are things that we need to get into all communities, make sure everybody is hearing it."
Natural disasters can lead to domestic violence as people spend more time together in close quarters without breaks. Crises like the pandemic can force victims to stay in abusive situations because they're unable to work and cannot afford to find a place to live or be on their own. Economic abuse, including blocked or restricted access to household finances or work outside of the home, is a common reason people facing interpersonal violence or abuse do not leave.
Liz Richards, executive director of Violence Free Minnesota, told members of the Minnesota House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division during a remote hearing Monday that they're worried victims may not call for help even though services are still available.
She said helping victims find housing, transportation, internet access and legal services has been among the bigger challenges. She pointed out that hotel and motel closures in rural areas means less temporary shelter for victims, and closed libraries means decreased access to the internet to file for unemployment or find services.
"One of the challenges with victim-survivors and their family members staying in hotels is how do we get them the necessary food and supplies while they're in hotel spaces," Richards said. "There's a host of housing issues and concerns that we're facing and working to deal with."
When people call the state's Day One Crisis helpline, advocates listen to them and try to come up with a safety plan, said Colleen Schmitt, director of programs for Day One at Cornerstone, which oversees the help line. She said some of that safety planning includes asking if they have access to a private phone if they need to call 911, making note of which rooms they may become more easily trapped in, knowing where guns or other weapons are kept and developing a code word they can use so children and other people in the home know to run or call for help.
Schmitt said these calls sometimes come down to helping victims understand they have permission and the right to call 911 if they feel unsafe.
"What we're seeing a little bit more is that people are more and more concerned with the huge isolation factor," Schmitt said. "We have seen survivors and victims who are trying to get away use many, many different ways and things that your average person wouldn't think about, telling bus drivers, telling people at a hair salon, people at church they need help, but now … there's more heightened awareness that they feel a little more trapped in their situation."
Given the stay-at-home order, "every cop probably assumed domestic-related calls would arise," said Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate. Although he did not have numbers readily available, Tate said he senses there has been a slight increase in the number of such calls. He pointed to one incident over a child exchange in which one parent refused to turn over their child to the other because of coronavirus concerns. He said the department is not changing its approach and is still showing up to homes when called.
"The last thing we want is someone to think there aren't resources out there and under the current situation 'I shouldn't call the cops,' or that they won't get the services that they need," Tate said. "If someone is in trouble, they absolutely should be calling."