What to do if you're isolated with an abuser during the pandemic, according to women's shelter and anti-domestic violence advocates

What to do if you're isolated with an abuser during the pandemic, according to women's shelter and anti-domestic violence advocates
COVID-19 regulations and safer-at-home protocols may have added a tool in the toolbox of those who abuse, says one expert.Shutterstock
  • Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US, there has been a reported increase in domestic violence cases and 911 calls related to domestic abuse, especially in large metropolitan areas.
  • If you or someone you know is isolated with an abuser, experts says it's important to do what you can to maintain an outside support system and make a safety plan in case you are able to escape.
  • If you can, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or text LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474, or use the live chat function on thehotline.org to connect with people who can help. They are available 24/7.

Living day to day experiencing domestic violence is already physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing for the victim of the abuse. Compounded with isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, the strain of a toxic living situation may be at an unprecedented high.

"Our fear is that COVID-19 regulations and safer at home protocols have really added a tool in the toolbox of those who abuse," said Ruth M. Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). "We've heard stories of abusers using COVID-19 as a weapon itself: 'I'm afraid you'll get the kids sick,' or 'If you leave [the house], you'll get sick and put us all at risk.'"

Weaponizing the pandemic may be the newest tactic in a domestic abuser's arsenal

People often equate "domestic violence" to physical abuse. In reality, the term encompasses everything from physical abuse, to emotional, sexual, psychological, and financial abuse or violence. But one of the more sinister methods that abusers use is one that often flies under the radar of family and friends: isolation.

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This involves influencing, controlling, or monitoring where a victim goes, when they do certain activities, and with whom they communicate. Abusers effectively shut off their victim's access to other people and resources. And because victims fear retaliation if they don't comply, they'll often willingly isolate themselves for their own safety.

According to the NCADV, domestic violence affects more than 10 million people per year. It disproportionately affects women, particularly young women, low-income women and ethnic minorities, according to the National Organization for Women and research published in the Journal of Women's Health. The NCADV estimates that on a typical day, domestic violence hotlines nationwide receive more than 20,000 calls.


Members of vulnerable groups are often at a higher risk of isolation and domestic abuse

"Abusers tend to be very skilled in isolating their partners to create financial, physical and/or emotional dependency," said Elizabeth Lee, director of housing for Downtown Women's Center, a Los Angeles organization focused on empowering women experiencing homelessness and formerly homeless women. "Undocumented immigrants, survivors with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and those without independent incomes can be even more vulnerable to isolation, as abusers may threaten to 'out' a survivor, report their immigration status, remove mobility devices, or tightly control all spending."

Since the pandemic hit, many destinations worldwide are reporting an increase in domestic violence cases and calls to hotlines or emergency services. According to CNN, nine of the 20 large U.S. metropolitan police departments it contacted saw double-digit percentage jumps in domestic violence cases or 911 calls in March, either compared to the previous year or to the beginning of 2020.

And while some US. cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York reported an initial drop in domestic violence calls, local officials have expressed concern that the number is low because victims are in such isolation and proximity to their abusers that they're unable or too afraid to alert authorities.

Now that some cities and states have begun to loosen or repeal coronavirus restrictions, victims of domestic abuse may have more options for temporarily or permanently leaving their situations, though in some locales, there is still a dearth of shelters and transitional housing, which have been impacted by COVID-19.

There are ways to get help

No matter the circumstances of victims' situations, there are resources they can access and steps they can take to keep themselves and their families safe. Business Insider spoke with experts on domestic violence for their advice on how victims can begin regaining control of their lives.


Note: Each of our sources was quick to emphasize that it's difficult — and, in some cases, harmful — to give specific recommendations for someone isolated with an abuser, because these toxic relationships are uniquely personal and complicated for every victim. A tactic that works for one person could result in dangerous escalation for another. These experts maintain the below tips as general advice, and advocate that victims reach out to a domestic violence hotline or organization, which can help them address their specific circumstances.

Create a support system

Sometimes people aren't ready or able to leave an abusive situation, but an initial step they can take — and one of the most critical — is interrupting the silence. This might be calling a hotline, texting a family member, or researching local resources.

"The more isolated you are, the more abuse will happen to you," said Barbara Kappos, executive director of the East Los Angeles Women's Center, which provides domestic violence and sexual assault services, primarily to women and children. "Breaking that silence allows you to move forward and to see a light. Maybe it's just support to get through that moment and that day."

Seeking support is crucial, affirms Jason B. Whiting, a licensed family therapist, professor of marriage and family therapy at Brigham Young University and author of "Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways we Deceive in Relationships."

"That might be in the form of information, such as online blogs or Reddit support groups, or talking to a trusted friend," he said. "Those in less immediately dangerous situations can start by talking to a professional, and reading books or blogs on unhealthy relationships."


When you do reach out to someone, assess your safest options — abusers often monitor their victims' phones, as well as track their GPS, Kappos warns. You may need to delete your texts or call logs and find creative ways to connect.

Gabrielle Moore, an advocate for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, says that might be going for a walk or drive, going into the backyard, or just going into a different bedroom to make a phone call. Use taking your kids to the park to play as an excuse to get out, then make a call from there, she suggests. However you reach out, though, do it.

"Sometimes people feel like it's a bad thing to call a hotline — but making that first call is a very shifting and powerful moment," Moore said. "You're taking your power back when you make that first call."

Make a safety plan

A safety plan, as defined by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, is a personalized, practical plan that incorporates ways to remain safe while in an abusive relationship, planning to leave, or after you leave. Ideally, it will include all the vital information you need to safely remove yourself from your circumstances, and it should be tailored to your specific situation and account for varying scenarios.

"I trust survivors to come up with their best safety plan," said Glenn of the NCADV. "Victims have the ability to assess their own safety and what's going to be the best recourse for them in any given moment, even when things are escalating."


To begin creating a safety plan, Glenn gives some examples of questions to ask yourself: Do you have all the documents you might need within easy access? Do you have a trusted friend with whom you can set up a code word or action, or who can help you seek safety? Does someone know how to reach you other than your cellphone or computer? If you have children, do they know what to do if you use a code phrase like, "Did you call about the pizza?"

"Everyone has a different safety plan, but it's important, because if you need to leave, that helps you move forward," said Kappos of the East Los Angeles Women's Center.

In addition to Glenn's suggestions, Kappos recommends having an emergency contact, a cellphone the abuser doesn't have access to, credit cards on the side, money stashed away, and legal representation if you plan to take your kids when you leave (so that your abuser can't charge you with parental kidnapping). However, Kappos notes that this may not be doable for many victims, as financial abuse often factors into domestic violence.

There can be all types of barriers to getting help, Kappos acknowledges, and it can take time to figure out how to access it, especially during the coronavirus. But when you connect to an organization focused on domestic violence support, you'll be able to access services a little more easily, she says.

Whether or not you reach out to an organization for help with creating a safety plan, it's imperative to have one. Leaving is the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship, according to Lee of Downtown Women's Center, so creating a safety plan can be one of the most protective steps you can take.


"Never let go of your own safety plan," Glenn said. "It does not have to be written down; it doesn't have to be step-by-step thought-out. Never lose your instincts about that, COVID or no COVID."

Wherever you are in your journey, don't give up

There is still hope and help out there, even in quarantine, Lee says. Victims of abuse are never truly alone.

"No matter how bleak things may seem, there are people literally waiting by the phone to help you," she said. "Advocates understand that you know yourself and your relationship best, but are specially trained to help you think through the best path to safety. They also have expertise in local resources for shelter, financial support, medical attention, law enforcement, restraining orders, and counseling, so they can talk you through all your options."

Anyone affected by abuse and in need of support can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Advocates are available 24/7 and additionally reachable by texting LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474 or via live chat on thehotline.org.