Weeks of state stay-at-home orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic in Pennsylvania have outstretched domestic tensions and limited escape opportunities, victims advocates and crime experts said.
The plea for help wasn’t one that a boss expects to hear from an employee working from home.
During a video conference call, the employee confided her husband had beaten her. Police were called, the husband was removed, but the woman said she still did not feel safe.
"She wanted someone to know the situation; she was afraid he’d come and kill her," said Ifeoma Aduba, interim executive director for A Woman’s Place, Bucks County’s domestic violence services provider.
Aduba learned about the exchange after the woman’s boss contacted A Woman’s Place looking for guidance.
It’s the kind of outreach effort that is happening far less often during the coronavirus pandemic in Pennsylvania.
Social service agencies report a steep drop in reports involving abuse and crimes against children, the elderly, intimate partners and sexual assault victims.
Job losses, social isolation, and the disruption of everyday routines have increased domestic tensions and frustrations, which can explode into physical violence. But victims have been isolated with their abusers, likely too afraid to seek help.
Stuck at home, many are removed from people like teachers and senior advocates who are not only trained to identify abuse but mandated to report it. Court closures have also made it harder to enforce protection from abuse orders and more challenging to file protection petitions.
But as Pennsylvania slowly emerges from pandemic-related shutdowns, advocates for abuse survivors are bracing for the fallout.
Criminologists believe the full impact won’t be known until communities reopen. History has shown that abuse flared during similar times of great public crisis.
"Abuse is often hidden away; this virus and the response, give it an additional hiding place," said Penny Ettinger, executive director of the Network of Victim Assistance in Doylestown.
The Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office found disturbing abuse trends when it analyzed county data from the first weeks after state-implemented social distancing measures went into effect.
Calls to ChildLine, the state’s child abuse hotline, involving Montgomery County, dropped nearly 40% — from 278 to 170 — in March compared to the year before. The county is among those with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Pennsylvania, and was among the first to be shut down.
The decline was more dramatic in April when only 100 child abuse referrals were made, compared to 260 in April 2019, according to the analysis by county detectives, who vet and investigate them.
"Child abuse, unfortunately, doesn’t just suddenly stop happening in such a dramatic way," Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele said. "So this significant decrease in reports seems to indicate that the child abuse that is occurring is simply not being reported."
Montgomery County’s experience is mirrored elsewhere.
Since Pennsylvania schools closed on March 16, calls to ChildLine have fallen as much as 50%, according to the state Department of Human Services, which oversees the hotline.
There were 10,674 ChildLine reports in April compared to 21,232 a year earlier, according to the state. For the first 28 days of May, those reports dropped 40%, from 23,546 last year to 14,181.
Nearly 84% of the 46,617 reports made to ChildLine in 2018 came from mandated reporters, with one-third attributed to school employees, according the Department of Human Services.
With schools, day care centers, and after-school, church and community programs closed and youth sports suspended, it has eliminated a significant portion of state-mandated child abuse reporters, Ettinger said.
Meanwhile, schools are using remote learning to complete the academic year, which can give online predators easy access to unsupervised kids, Ettinger added.
"That is worrisome," she said.
Adults at risk
Children aren’t the only ones at higher risk for violence during the pandemic.
Visitor restrictions have kept out family and friends as well as patient advocates and ombudsmen responsible for investigating abuse and neglect claims in long-term care communities and congregate care settings.
Chuck Danfield, supervisor of Bucks County Older Adult Protective Services, attributed a recent drop in suspected financial exploitation reports with more seniors — who are at a higher risk for COVID-19 and its complications — following medical advice to avoid contact with people.
"A lot of our reports come from professionals who are visiting the elderly and a lot of them come from family members who are visiting," he added. "I don’t think the visits are occurring as frequently."
Calls to emergency shelters and domestic violence service providers also are down as social distancing restrictions and stay-at-home orders make it harder to access services.
At the same time, though, law enforcement agencies are responding to more domestic disputes, in some cases with deadly results.
In April, two Pottstown residents were charged with first-degree murder in separate domestic incidents less than a week apart.
Michael Hatfield, 69, is accused of using an extension cord to strangle his 71-year-old wife after an argument on April 10. Six days later, police charged Caitlin Mauras, 21, with fatally slashing the neck of her live-in boyfriend during a fight over his social media activity, the Montgomery County DA’s Office said.
When the Montgomery County Detective Bureau analyzed abuse hotline call activity and police incident reports during the first month of state-imposed social distancing restrictions, they found domestic calls to police increased 9% compared to the previous year.
"As disturbing as these numbers are, it’s likely that there are more disturbances and violence happening in homes that go unreported to police," Montgomery County’s Steele said.
In Lower Moreland, which borders Bucks County and Philadelphia, domestic disturbance calls increased from an average of one or two a week in the weeks before the pandemic to three to five, Police Chief David Scirrotto said.
In Bucks County, Middletown has seen a slight increase in domestic calls over the last month, according to Police Chief Joseph Bartorilla. There also has been an increase in officers serving protection-from-abuse orders, he said.
Bensalem police department responded to 301 domestic dispute calls between March 15 and May 15 compared to the 230 for the same weeks in 2019, a 31% jump, Public Safety Director Fred Harran said.
The department has not seen an increase in arrests for domestic incidents; most calls turn out to be family disturbances and not all involve a physical altercation, Harran added.
A challenge for his department has been limited availability of shelter beds and other out-of-home placement options, Middletown’s Bartorilla said.
The department learned that recently, when officers handled a PFA service involving children who needed protective custody. The officers were able to work it out and safely place the children, Bartorilla said.
"If a parent is removed from a home because of a PFA order and there are children involved, and no family members to take custody of them, it’s difficult to place them in protective custody," he added.
During the state lockdown, Bucks and Montgomery County courts continued accepting and processing PFA requests.
Temporary orders were automatically extended beyond the usual 10-day limit until courts reopened and hearings could be scheduled for a permanent order.
But both counties have seen a drop in demand since the shutdown, local officials said.
The first two weeks of March, 50 abuse protection applications were filed in Montgomery County Court, while the second half of the month, it dropped to 37, court administrator Michael Kehl said.
Fifty-seven PFA petitions were filed between March 31 and April 24, roughly half the 115 requests filed for the same time period a year earlier, Kehl said.
Bucks County saw a small drop in PFA filings after stay-at-home orders took effect: 29 petitions compared with 36 a year earlier, according to Prothonotary Judi Reiss.
Her office processed 45 PFAs in April, six fewer than a year earlier, but almost half of the most recent filings came the last week of April, Reiss said.
Reduced court hours and visitor bans made getting orders — and enforcing them — more challenging and stressful, advocates said.
"A decision to file for a PFA is a challenging one in the best of situations without housing options and income concerns," said Aduba, of A Woman’s Place.
Applicants have been forced to navigate the necessary court paperwork without legal assistance because domestic violence services staffers are barred under court visitor restrictions.
Prothonotary staff can help with the basic directions but cannot offer legal advice, Reiss said.
"The paperwork may be intimidating to some," Reiss added.
As Pennsylvania slowly returns to pre-pandemic life, Ettinger and other advocates for abuse survivors are bracing for the fallout.
NOVA typically sees a surge in child abuse referrals when kids return to school after summer break or long school holidays. Ettinger believes the coronavirus shutdown will generate an even greater demand for services for children, adults and senior citizens.
Criminologist John DeCarlo believes the true impact of the coronavirus on domestic violence incidents won’t be accurately assessed until after communities reopen.
"We are doing a social experiment, a large-scale social experiment, and we’ll be able to tease out and unpack after it’s over," said DeCarlo, an associate professor of criminal justice studies at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.
After the Great Depression of the 1930s, sociologists and criminologists found a large increase in intimate and family violence occurred, said DeCarlo, a retired Connecticut police chief.
Similar increases in domestic violence and child abuse were seen during the recent recession in 2008.
Early anecdotal data shows wide variations in domestic violence patterns since the COVID-19 crisis began, according to DeCarlo.
Cincinnati, Denver, New Orleans and New York City are among the cities reporting no change in hotline activity, he said. San Diego, Los Angeles and Miami saw fewer calls.
In Philadelphia, hotline calls jumped 30%, DeCarlo said.
But DeCarlo suggested upticks in reports are likely far larger since intimate partner violence and child abuse are considered underreported crimes in ordinary circumstances.
"It’s hard to tease out reasons other than the obvious, like financial strain," he added. "We don’t know what is going to happen when COVID stops."