FARMINGTON – During the heightened anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic, what happens if one’s home has never been a safe place?
Advocates worry survivors and possible victims of domestic violence face increased risk under stay-at-home orders.
“For victims, home is often not safe, and may never have been,” said Pam Wiseman, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “The fact that people are closed up, financial issues, the uncertainty, the anxiety – all of that is a toxic stew that could potentially make things worse.”
The number of calls to the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office has been relatively consistent with previous years’ rates, said spokeswoman Jayme Harcrow.
From March 12 – the first physical-distancing announcement from the governor – to April 12, the Sheriff’s Office responded to 125 domestic violence calls. During the comparable period in 2019, the office responded to 89 domestic violence calls, Harcrow said. It responded to 119 calls in 2018 and 123 in 2017.
“In reality, the outlier would be more like 2019, as our related calls are staying consistent with previous years’ data,” Harcrow said.
Wiseman said the number of calls can vary across the state.
“In some places, it seems like there has been an increase, in others less so,” she said.
She pointed to Albuquerque in Bernalillo County, which has seen a 78% increase in domestic violence felony charges, according to its District Attorney’s Office.
Still, domestic violence may be underreported. “People aren’t calling, aren’t able to call or aren’t sure how they’re able to get out of the house,” she said. “That’s keeping the numbers a bit lower than what’s happening.”
The Farmington Police Department reported domestic violence calls increased by 44% between February and March, spokeswoman Nicole Brown said. But while calls to officers have increased, the number of filed crime reports has been stable.
In February, the department received 176 domestic violence calls, compared with 253 calls in March. But of those calls, only 58 case reports were filed in February, and 51 in March, Brown said.
“People might be calling more for reporting an argument, but there’s actually not more violence,” Brown said. “They’re at home together more, so they’re getting into more arguments.”
She said April is on track to be similar. To date, the department is on track for 63 case reports in April. From April 1 to April 10, it received 85 calls, and if that rate continues, the department expects 255 calls by the end of the month.
Victims may use 911 and a free texting service, and Brown said the department is trying to let them know the Sheriff’s Office can help connect them to the Navajo United Methodist Center and Family Crisis Center and Shelter.
The COVID-19 pandemic also has financially strained domestic violence shelters and support programs.
“We’re on the phone with funders all the time,” Wiseman said. “We’re trying to work with the federal government to get some additional funding.”
In the meantime, local residents can help. Support programs have been running low on food and cleaning supplies, diapers, baby formula and milk, Wiseman said, adding that monetary donations are helpful, too.
According to Wiseman, shelters throughout the state are trying to balance their services while keeping staff, clients and the community safe. “It strains their resources, and it’s hard for them to do,” she said.
Victims face choosing to stay at home or take shelter in an unfamiliar setting.
“People don’t want to go to a shelter because they’re afraid of getting the virus or having their kids get it,” Wiseman said.
And that might have contributed to increased use of phone and video services.
“Shelters are getting a lot of calls for counseling and their services by phone and computer,” she said. “I think people are calling that haven’t called before.”
She added those services likely will remain open after the pandemic passes.
“Our programs are open,” she said. “All of the services are being provided right now, but they just might be provided differently than before.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call (800) 799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You can also call Farmington’s Family Crisis Center and Shelter’s 24-hour crisis hotline at (888) 440-9192.