Credit: Diyanna Burton

Domestic violence has surged both nationwide and in D.C. during the pandemic. 

From Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021, DC SAFE, the District’s only 24/7 crisis intervention agency for domestic violence, received and assisted with 57 percent more client requests for help than the previous fiscal year. From 2019 to 2020, Ayuda, a nonprofit serving low-income D.C. immigrants, saw an 80 percent increase in clients in need of domestic violence assistance. House of Ruth, which works to empower women and families in the D.C. area healing from trauma, abuse, and homelessness, saw a 9 percent increase in domestic violence survivors in the same period. Network for Victim Recovery of DC, which provides advocacy, case management, and legal services to survivors of all types of crime, had 20 percent more legal clients during that period. 

Mercedes Lemp, executive director of D.C.-based My Sister’s Place, which shelters, supports, and empowers DV survivors and their children, tells City Paper that the nonprofit had seen an increase in the severity of reported abuse, including a rise in cases involving strangulation. DV-related calls to MSP have also risen from an average of three to five daily calls to five to seven during the pandemic, she says. 

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which evolved from a “Day of Unity” in 1981 to a month-long observance in 1987 and an official designation from Congress in 1989.

In the District, Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants honored Domestic Violence Awareness Month with DV-related messages spotlighting a wide range of activities such as workshops on preventing financial dependence, commemoration of Purple Thursday on Oct. 21, when people are encouraged to wear the color to support survivors, and a visit to the Humane Rescue Alliance that’s helping house and heal pets of domestic violence survivors.

But as helpful as such public service activities may be, awareness goes deeper than limited-edition events and annual announcements. Local organizations work year-round to demystify abuse, empower survivors, and provide essential services. An arduous grant-seeking process for these orgs often set them up as competitors for the same small grants. 

City Paper talked with nonprofits who work with survivors in the DMV about what factors may be contributing to the pandemic-era rise in DV cases and how people from different communities are disproportionately affected. and ways that city officials can help.

DV is Systemic 

While COVID lockdowns have created an environment where partners may be more susceptible to intimate partner violence, exacerbating factors are more systematic. Pandemic-era loss of income and inability to put food on the table and have stable housing has worsened intimate partner violence, according to a 2021 University of California, Davis, study.

Apart from socioeconomic status, immigrants and Black, Brown, Asian, and Pacific Islander folks often face additional intersectional challenges that make them more vulnerable to domestic violence and less likely to access the help they need. A systems-change lens is vital, as trauma and violence don’t exist in isolation, but are products of a complex system of colonization and oppression, says Krittika Ghosh, executive director of the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project (DVRP) and a leadership councilmember of DC’s Victim Advocacy Network.

“We’re talking about gender-based violence … and sexual violence occurring due to the violence in their home country, which has been caused by the impact of powers like the U.S.,” Ghosh says. “These are all things that are interconnected.” 

Giving simple responses to the issue of cultural factors in the disproportionate impact of DV on particular communities may lead to blaming oppressed communities, she says: “The easy answer, and I can say the wrong answer, is to say, ‘Oh, yeah, in our communities, we have these cultural things happening, such as forced marriages, honor killings, etc. But I think that those are the things that mainstream people want to hear, and I’m not saying the things that don’t occur, but [they] don’t occur in a vacuum. They occur because of larger practices of violence that are occurring.”

Marginalized communities also need culturally adaptive programs and people who can understand where they’re coming from, Ghosh says. Many have multiple factors of oppression stacked against them, including generational poverty, trauma, violence, an immigration status, language barriers, adverse encounters with law enforcement, and other facets of their experience that don’t allow them to readily access resources or feel safe sharing their experiences. 

A closed-group domestic violence workshop hosted by D.C.-based Platform of Hope on Tuesday highlighted how culture can sometimes blur the boundaries of healthy and abusive relationships. POH program manager Jessica Palencia says there’s a tendency in communities where machismo has a strong presence to say, “‘Well, that’s just men, right? That’s just the men in our culture.’

“And then it’s like, ‘No, like, let’s understand, let’s break that down,” she says. “And let’s break down what … it looks like when it’s toxic masculinity, masculinity, and when it’s actually just an abusive relationship.”

DV Programs are Under Resourced

Local resources for DV survivors are at capacity and limited, nonprofit leaders told City Paper

“They need more funding, they need more help, they need more staff, they really are helping such a vulnerable community, which unfortunately, is a very high-population community of survivors of domestic violence,” Palencia says. “As someone who literally connects with these organizations, and reaches out with them, [I know] there’s [a] six-months-to-a-year waitlist for some of them to get therapy.”

While Palencia expressed gratitude for the partnership POH has with Mary’s Center, she laments the restricted scope of such partnerships due to limited city funding. 

“It shouldn’t be that way,” she says. “You shouldn’t have … a very limited program that only has a specific amount of spots for people to then get access [to] very essential things like therapy, or, you know, resources [for] domestic violence. This should be something that is much more accessible in the community.”

Change Starts with Education

On average in the U.S., nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. To prevent or combat DV, or to help someone in need, education is the first step, Ghosh says. A list of local resources is available from the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence here and MPD DV Unit here

Educating people about the challenges and the different ways DV can present is essential to empathy, empowerment, and the work that local organizations do outside of DVAM, says Maria Guillory, director of development and communications at the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

“It’s not easy for [survivors of IPV] to walk away from situations where they may feel economically secure, … and so their kids are safe, whatever that means [to them], and find a home [where] they have some sense of belonging,” Guillory says. “So, that’s why I do [the work], and I think this coalition of organizations have definitely helped to elevate the needs of survivors.”

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