A 47-year-old woman found herself stuck in a Bloomington hotel room with her boyfriend last March as Minnesotans were sheltering in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After four months, she couldn’t put up with his physical and verbal abuse any longer.

“He was just there all the time, just me and him. All the time. It felt like forever,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. “I was with him and I was stuck. I really didn't have anywhere to go.”

Her experience being stuck in place with her abuser is exactly the scenario that state officials and advocates expressed concerns about early on in the pandemic. They also feared people would believe leaving would violate the stay-at-home order and that abusive relationships could be magnified by the stress of the pandemic.

Data on police reports, requests for shelter and crisis hotline calls during the lockdown period and the weeks that followed paint a mixed picture, according to a Star Tribune analysis.

Calls, chats, texts and emails to the Day One statewide crisis line were up 21% during the first month of the stay-at-home order compared to the same time last year.

Requests for shelter were low during the first three weeks, then spiked after news reports about the concerns that advocates and state officials raised.

Meanwhile, reports to Minneapolis Police were down by 26%, but the incidents that were reported tended to be more violent, according to a Star Tribune analysis.

The volume of police reports returned to near-normal levels after the first month, then dropped again when George Floyd was killed by police on Memorial Day, and civil unrest engulfed large areas of the city. Calls to the hotline spiked again that week, as well.

Advocates said it’s hard to know if more domestic violence has been occurring during the pandemic, but they have certainly seen that it has been even more difficult for victims to flee. Even under normal circumstances, reaching out for help, finding new housing, getting a job and arranging childcare or schooling for kids is tough.

“When the bottom drops out, and something happens like COVID, then all of that just gets exacerbated,” said Denise Eng, a project coordinator for multiple shelters in the metro area.

A drop, then a spike

Becky Smith said she was “gravely concerned” when she heard the news that Minnesota would start a lockdown on March 28. The communications director for Violence Free Minnesota worried that domestic violence victims would incorrectly assume the programs to help them would be shut down.

Many callers to the Day One statewide crisis line in late March and early April told hotline workers that they were unsure if services were available, said Colleen Schmitt, director of programs at Cornerstone Advocacy Service, which oversees the hotline. Requests for shelter were also down 20% during that time.

But then about a month into it, they saw a spike in people seeking shelter, possibly due to news stories that helped clarify that shelters were open. Then there was another spike the week of Floyd’s death.

Shelters were open the whole time, but had to modify operations in order to meet COVID safety measures. Mainly, they have been collaborating with local hotels to house some victims, so that they can meet social distancing guidelines in their own facilities.

Domestic violence, which ranges from psychological abuse, to verbal abuse, to rape and other physical violence, is under-reported under normal circumstances. Over half of victims never seek help because they feel uncertain about reporting someone close to them -- often an intimate partner -- to authorities, Smith said. They may also have financial constraints or fear for their safety or feel they don’t have the autonomy to leave the relationship.

Studies based on natural events in the past, such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, have found domestic violence increased. Sudden changes in income, employment and housing are common during these kinds of events. Government infrastructure that supports and shapes daily life shifts dramatically. Healthcare options are limited. Interpersonal relationships are strained due to lack of contact, stress, isolation, and trauma.

“COVID-19 has exploited all of the weaknesses in our social and economic structure that can provide support for everyday folks,” Eng said.

Schmitt, with Day One, said they have seen abusers leverage the COVID-19 crisis to their benefit to further restrict their victims, such as using it as a reason to keep children from visitations, or restricting their victims from getting tested. These threats can discourage victims from getting a protection order or calling 911 because the courts had limited availability, Schmitt said.

Add to that the fears that everyone has had about getting sick.

“People are terrified to go into emergency departments right now to get an evidentiary exam,” said Jude Foster, a senior coordinator with the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA).

Video by Salma Loum and Matt Gilmer, Star Tribune

Incidents might be more frequent or more violent during times of crisis because the perpetrator wants to gain a sense of control “in a situation that seems out of control,” or because the strain of the disaster increases things like drug use, poor coping skills, or mental health issues, according to a report by the Minnesota Department of Children and Families.

Schmitt said that as COVID-19 goes on, she’s been hearing more stories from victims/survivors where the perpetrators seem to be escalating the level of violence due to economic constraints such as a job loss or other financial hardship.

Calls to the crisis line also reflected an increase of the severity in violence, Smith said.

Minneapolis Police incident reports showed that more violence was prevalent in this year's reports in comparison to the previous four years. Incidents causing physical harm, such as assault with a dangerous weapon or strangulation, made up a greater share of this year’s cases than in recent years.

In addition, at least 21 people in Minnesota died between January and early September as a result of confirmed intimate partner violence, matching the 21 deaths reported in all of 2019, according to data tracked by Violence Free Minnesota.

A drop in calls

The Star Tribune’s analysis of Minneapolis Police reports shows the largest dip in reported domestic violence incidents occurred the week of Floyd’s death. This coincided with an overall decline in all incidents that police responded to, but it’s not clear how much of that is due to people not calling police or staffing shortages in the department.

Minneapolis Police did not respond to requests for comment. Statewide data isn’t yet available.

The drop in calls may reflect fears by people of color to come forward, Foster said. Floyd’s death was “the tipping point” for people of color to demand change in the legal system and started seeking alternative solutions, Foster said.

Foster added that, for years, she’s been talking to victims who are concerned for “the way folks of color have been treated in the criminal justice system.”

She said people who have been abused, particularly LGBTQ and people of color, may have had negative interactions with police in the past, and often lack the confidence to alert authorities when in danger.

Both crises in the city also have contributed to economic instability for more people.  It’s difficult to gain safety and live independently away from an abuser, when you have limited access to things like money, housing, transportation, and affordable childcare, Smith said.

“We are just beginning to see the economic impacts of the pandemic and survivors are going to be navigating the economic downfall, especially survivors in marginalized communities,” Smith said.

Video by Salma Loum and Matt Gilmer, Star Tribune

The woman who left her abuser in the hotel room said that she was pretty much “in limbo during the whole pandemic already.” She was stuck in a hotel, unemployed and her abuser’s job slowed down due to the pandemic. This left her “feeling smothered,” she said.

She thought of leaving a dozen times before finally being successful. Her life was in shambles as he was in control of their finances, where they lived and who they were friends with.

“He was really charming,” said the survivor, which made her fear that no one would believe her stories of the constant emotional abuse. Then, one day he was on the phone with a family member and she recalled him saying, “If this girl ever left me oh, there's going to be homicide.”

That seemed like a direct threat to her life, even though his family member laughed and thought it was a joke, she said.

The threats and abuse got worse over their three-year relationship. A couple of instances of physical abuse took place in public while he was driving. She now wonders why no one reported these public incidents to law enforcement or came to her aid.

The survivor experienced severe health issues that required regular doctor visits, and as time passed by, her abuser refused to take her to her appointments, and used it as leverage against her, she said.

The day she left, she patiently waited until her boyfriend left the room. She searched online and found the number to a crisis hotline. Within one hour, a women’s advocacy group sent her a ride share that brought her to a shelter.

The survivor said that her experience with the shelter has been a “lifesaver” because she’s finally been able to get back to her regular doctor's appointment.

“There’s a lot of conflicting feelings of sadness and guilt, but I’m optimistic for the future,” she said.