For Domestic Abuse Survivors, Staying Home Has Its Own Dangers

by Carolyn Bick

Author’s Note: If you are in crisis or need help, scroll down to find a list of helplines and resources at the end of this story.

Years ago, Ariel Gliboff fled her abuser by getting on a plane, and flying far away. It was hard enough then, she said. But now, with a stay-home order in place for Washington State?

“Honestly, this situation we are currently in is worst-case,” said Gliboff, the Redmond-based host of The Domestic Violence Discussion podcast. “I hopped on a plane, and I left the state, and that was how I escaped. And if I were looking to that these days, with the restrictions on flying and even public transportation — even on buses — that would just limit my options on how I would leave.” 

For most people, being stuck inside — though at times tedious — isn’t a life-or-death situation. The biggest risk for the majority of people sheltering in place right now is the novel coronavirus, the reason for the state’s current stay-home order, which Gov. Inslee extended until at least May 4. The order is meant to combat the spread of the virus, which causes COVID-19, the disease that has killed 262 people as of April 1, according to the state Department of Health coronavirus page.

For domestic violence survivors, the situation is different. Though they are at risk if they leave their homes, their wellbeing can be in just as much jeopardy if they stay inside. The problem is compounded in places like South Seattle and South King County as a whole, which don’t have as many or as comprehensive a selection of resources, when compared with wealthier areas of Seattle, said Doris O’Neal, who leads the area’s YWCA domestic violence services, in addition to other related programs.

The way abusers can manipulate and exert even more control over survivors can take many forms, during a crisis like this, said Kelly Starr, Managing Director of Public Affairs at the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV). Because domestic violence is about control and power, abusers can seize on the stay-home messaging from state officials and force survivors into further isolation, using either physical or emotional intimidation tactics, or a combination of both.

Starr said one major concern of survivor advocates is the fact that gun sales have jumped in the state, since the COVID-19 outbreak, making it statistically more likely for abusers to have lethal weapons. Gliboff said she has heard about several instances of abusers using the current health crisis to their advantage, one of which involved a gun.

“A survivor was about to leave for work, but then her abuser began loading a gun to frighten her into staying home,” Gliboff said.

Starr said that some of the coalition’s members are experiencing increased calls for help, specifically regarding money and housing. Many people have been furloughed, meaning they are temporarily suspended from work without pay, or laid off entirely.

“When people have … less access to all kinds of options that money gives you access to, it … shrinks your options, and shrinks your availability … other than relying on an abusive person for that stability,” Starr said.

O’Neal said this pattern can lead to economic abuse. If the abuser becomes the primary breadwinner for the household, rather than both the abuser and the survivor holding down jobs, the survivor quickly becomes economically dependent upon the abuser for food and shelter.

“It can make it harder for her also by not having that resource to bring into the home — she could be punished for that, also,” O’Neal said. “And now the abusive person is even more [abusive] because finances are tight, food is tight, children are home all day — kids are eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in the home. That can create a big deal, if you have more than … two or three children.”

Though O’Neal said the YWCA has not yet seen a jump in calls for South King County, she said this could change, as the time people spend together increases.

This could spell trouble for the state’s already-stretched domestic violence resources.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak and Gov. Jay Inslee’s ensuing stay-home order, the state’s domestic violence programs faced an almost overwhelming crush of need. According to a 2019 Domestic Violence Counts Day report compiled by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) and released in March 2020, there were 2,915 domestic violence survivors served in one day in Washington State. However, there were a further 485 total unmet requests for service. The data, collected over a 24-hour period on Sept. 12, 2019, reflects just 84 percent of the state’s domestic violence programs that were invited to participate.

More than half of the successful service requests were for emergency housing and shelter, but so were 73 percent of the unmet requests. This means that in one single day of service, 354 people in Washington — or possibly more, depending on if it was a situation involving an adult and one or more children — were unable to escape their abusers that day.

Survivors who live in South Seattle and South King County also often face more hurdles than do survivors in other areas, O’Neal said, because they are hampered by other issues like systemic racism. She said there is a decided dearth of resources for survivors, as one gets further away from the heart of Seattle, because fewer county resources are allocated to the South End, where more vulnerable communities tend to live. Moreover, marginalized communities don’t tend to seek help as often as more privileged communities, she said.

This is especially true for immigrant communities, who are afraid to seek help, according to the NNEDV report.

“When immigrant survivors of abuse reach out to [the NNEDV], it is much later into their abuse and they are coming to us with more severe injuries, increased barriers, and almost as a last resort,” the report reads.

The report did not offer an explanation as to why immigrant communities may be more afraid to seek help, but a separate NNEDV report published in 2018 points to current United States immigration policy and enforcement, as well as a lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate services as culprits.

Just as the situations domestic abuse survivors may face are varied, domestic abuse survivors themselves are not one homogenous group. They may be any gender or race, and they may also be children. It’s particularly difficult to ensure the latter’s safety, said Joanne Alcantara, Executive Director of API Chaya, as children have almost no form of independence. Because of the six-week suspension in school attendance, children in abusive situations don’t have a way to escape or find relief in the ways that they might in normal times.

“This is a really great time for grandparents and aunties and teachers to insist on video meetings, and just to look out for, ‘How is this child presenting?’ and to make them regular,” Alcantara said. “Build a practice of … ‘Every week I am going to be talking with this child,’ so the caregivers know that, too. … That can sometimes be a great violence prevention measure in itself for a caregiver to know, ‘Oh, someone is going to be checking up on this person.’”

Alcantara said for children who are survivors of abuse, keeping contact with someone who is a healthy influence in their lives can be helpful, especially because it signals to them that someone in their life cares and is there for them if they need help.

“Part of what folks can do, if they are family members or friends … is could you be available for a child in need, and could you be an option for safety?” Alcantara said. 

This can also be a triggering time for survivors of domestic violence who are no longer in abusive situations, because there is still an external force keeping them inside and isolated. Gliboff said that even now, years and miles away from her abuser, she still feels the weight of what they did to her. Even so, she has developed strategies that work specifically for her to surmount her fears.

“I knit a lot, when I am feeling anxious, or just using my hands is really therapeutic,” Gliboff said. “I’ve also found that if I find myself being triggered, being able to say, ‘Okay, this is what’s causing me to feel this way,’ and saying out loud … what it is that’s causing me to go through this negative thought pattern is really helpful.”

Gliboff stressed that survivors’ loved ones can’t make decisions for them, and that the best thing those close to survivors can do is to continue checking in and be there for them. She encouraged survivors to try to develop a safety plan, but also to be kind to themselves if this doesn’t happen right away.

“Abusers love to use emotional manipulation and gaslighting and psychological abuse to make their victims feel like they are less than, to break down their self-esteem, and to make them think that they deserve the abuse,” Gliboff said. “The biggest thing I would have told myself is that I do matter and I don’t deserve to be treated this way. … In terms of leaving, I would have told myself to have a safety plan.”

Every person the Emerald spoke with for this story urged those who may be concerned about the safety of loved ones or their students to try to continuously check in with them, but to also be cautious, because abusers may be closely monitoring all forms of communication. O’Neal suggested that if friends and family members know of a person in an abusive situation that they pass along helpful numbers and information discreetly, and either carefully develop or be on the lookout for already-developed code words that mean the person is in crisis, and needs help.

Below is an alphabetical list of resources for survivors of domestic abuse and those who are concerned for them. All phone services listed below are free and confidential, and all continue to operate with as many services available as possible during the shelter-in-place order.

In King County, domestic violence protection orders can now be filed online. Find more information here.


Further resources for survivors

  • API Chaya’s list of both local and national resources and helplines
  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s list of national resources and helplines, including those for children
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline’s list of national resources and helplines
  • Washington State Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs’ list of tools and resources 

Other resources and guides

  • WSCADV’s Friends & Family Guide – Tips and tools for reaching out and staying connected to someone who may be experiencing abuse at home.
  • WSCADV’s COVID-19 Resource Round-Up – A regularly updated collection of resources for domestic violence programs and shelters across our state, based on the emerging needs of shelters and questions the coalition is getting from them.

Carolyn Bick is a South Seattle-based journalist and photographer. Reach them here.

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