For domestic violence victims, ‘it’s a very vulnerable time’

Woman holds her hands in front of her face
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate is partnering with dentists to promote an address-confidentiality program. (Photo by Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — For victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, staying at home may be more dangerous than leaving it — even during a pandemic.

Indeed, reports of abuse are on the rise in many cities as COVID-19 continues to spread and people are confined to their homes, according to an NBC News investigation. And many communities are reporting increased demands on victim service providers, according to Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. She and other senators wrote a letter to Senate leaders this week calling attention to the issue — what some fear may be another public health crisis.

“For a lot of people, home is not a safe place,” said Katherine Phillips, federal affairs manager at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

The Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence has not seen a huge growth in calls to its statewide hotline, according to spokeswoman Lindsay Pingel. But it is anticipating an increase, as often happens in the wake of crises. “It’s a very vulnerable time for survivors,” she said, but she added that supports and services are still available. “We’re here for them.”

In addition to being forced to stay home with abusers, survivors may face additional stress due the loss of a job or reduced income. Advocates also fear abusers may use the virus to withhold health supplies or important information or documents or prevent survivors from seeking medical attention. Survivors may fear going to hospitals or entering shelters or other places of support — like counseling centers and courthouses — and travel restrictions may prevent their escape.

At the same time, service providers are facing funding and staffing challenges and have seen an increased need for crisis intervention, shelter and legal assistance, Ernst and other senators wrote.

Problems are heightened in rural areas and other underserved communities, and particularly on tribal lands, they noted.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst is a Republican from Red Oak, Iowa. (Photo courtesy of Sen. Joni Ernst’s office)

To address the issue, Ernst — a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault — is urging congressional leaders to prioritize sexual assault and domestic violence funding in the next round of coronavirus relief negotiations.

She and other senators are asking for some $430 million to help victims survive the pandemic. The money would build on $45 million for domestic violence services and $2 million for the National Domestic Violence Hotline approved in last month’s coronavirus relief package, which was backed by all six members of Iowa’s congressional delegation.

Ernst also sent a separate letter to the Internal Revenue Service last week urging it to ensure that victims and survivors are able to receive relief payments Congress authorized last month. People at risk of abuse could have difficulty accessing the money, which amounts to $1,200 for most adults and $500 for most children, she said.

“The IRS must ensure that survivors are able to receive their stimulus check safely,” Ernst wrote. “During this crisis, every American deserves the promise of economic stability, and survivors are no different.”

VAWA momentum? 

Last year, Ernst objected to legislation passed by the U.S. House that would reauthorize funding for victims and survivors of domestic violence.

First enacted in 1994 and reauthorized three times since, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) funds programs and services that aim to prevent violence, support crime victims and change public attitudes about violence against women.

The U.S. House voted last April to renew and expand the bill, in part by making it easier to keep guns away from stalkers or dating partners convicted of abuse or assault — a provision opposed by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Iowa Reps. Abby Finkenauer, Dave Loebsack and Cindy Axne — all Democrats — voted for the bill, while GOP Rep. Steve King opposed it.

Senate Democrats sought to vote on a Senate version of the bill last fall, but Ernst objected, calling it a “non-starter” on the Senate floor. Instead, she introduced her own version of the bill.

Neither bill has moved forward, though Congress has continued to appropriate funds for VAWA programs, which are administered by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Advocates continue to push for VAWA reauthorization, said Julia Weber, implementation director at the Giffords Law Center. Closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole” is especially important now, in light of increased gun sales, she said. Research shows that the presence of a firearm increases the lethality of domestic violence incidents, she added.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who championed efforts to close the loophole, raised the issue on a call with reporters last month. “We know that we need to pass VAWA and get it reauthorized,” she said. “We’re going to keep working on this.”

Phillips said the focus on ensuring survivors have “basic necessities” in the short term won’t detract from advocates’ longer-term goals.

Ernst, Klobuchar and other senators, meanwhile, are seeking emergency aid to help states respond to incidents of violence and strengthen victim services; provide sexual assault services and housing assistance; and reach out to underserved groups. They also want special assistance for tribes and tribal organizations and to waive certain grant requirements so providers can more quickly meet survivors’ needs.

“At a time when people who experience domestic violence are at increased risk, and requests for sexual assault and domestic violence-related services have sharply increased, additional funding for these programs is critical,” the senators wrote.