LANSING, Mich. – Michigan is facing another public health threat on top of COVID-19: soaring domestic violence cases.
The Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, which represents 73 shelters across the state, has seen an outpouring of need from victims of domestic and sexual violence, Executive Director Sarah Prout Rennie said.
“It’s all real desperate,” she said. “Where we’re at is we need massive investment in domestic violence shelters and sexual assault shelters to be able to prep ourselves for what we know is coming.”
In the year leading up to October, the coalition received 1,300 calls on its helpline. In the next two months it received 1,250 calls and then in January, it had 1,000 calls for domestic and sexual violence assistance.
The biggest surge hasn’t arrived yet, Prout Rennie believes. An inability to fundraise during COVID-19, having limited shelter space available and a statewide effort to limit incarcerations because of COVID has created a perfect storm of need and danger for victims.
Leaders in domestic and sexual violence programs all over the country predicted a year ago that victims would be in greater danger as states entered lockdown and people were shut in with their abusers. Once the states started to reopen and vaccines rolled out, calls for help were expected to go up as victims could escape abusers, able to gather up their children or important documents.
During the pandemic Michigan focused on releasing vulnerable incarcerated people from prison and limiting pretrial incarceration. Between March and June last year, the state Department of Corrections reported a 1,958 prisoner population drop, about 5% of the state's prison population, the result of efforts to allow eligible individuals to receive early release or parole to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“As a social justice agency we’re in this weird position because we believe in reducing incarceration, but it’s definitely going to be a scalpel and not a chainsaw in these sort of sweeping reforms,” Prout Rennie said.
Kent County Prosecutor Christopher Becker echoed those concerns.
“There is a rush right now and there’s a lot of criminal justice reform and I'm supportive of that, but we’ve got to be careful,” Becker said. “Our victims, they’ve got to deal with these consequences that can be very dire.”
Becker said he's seen an increase in complaints from victims of defendants who are re-contacted by defendants. He's got four or five cases where people accused of domestic violence, while out on bond, got charged again.
Shelters are overwhelmed with a backlog of victims reaching out for help, Becker said. And subsequently his office will be put under more strain in terms of resources to respond.
In Kent County, Grand Rapids residents came to the rescue of victims, said Charrise Mitchell, CEO of YWCA West Central Michigan, where funding was limited and social distancing reduced available shelter beds.
The YWCA has partnered with another domestic violence shelter and a homeless shelter during the pandemic, and received community grants to temporarily house victims in hotels and provide other help.
“Philanthropy at the community level is the most immediate, flexible, nimble source of support because they see the need and they respond immediately," Mitchell said. “It doesn’t have to take a two-year grant cycle to meet the needs of the community.”
In rural Northern Michigan, the Women's Resource Center in Traverse City is at capacity, down from 22 beds to about a dozen, Director of Advocacy Kristi Boettcher said. It is the only domestic violence shelter serving four counties.
Besides the isolation many victims experience in rural areas, Boettcher said, she's read reports of students “going missing” during the pandemic, not attending any form of school, and is worried about victims no one has seen in a while.
“How many survivors have also kind of fallen off the map that way, and there’s no one to notice it?” Boettcher asked. “That’s one of the things that has kept me up a few nights, because if someone has lost their job and their children are not in school, and they’re probably already isolated from their family and friends because abusers really love to isolate their victims, who is going to notice if something happens to this person?”
The local sheriff's offices in the counties WCA serves have all reported increases in domestic violence calls, Boettcher said. But she thinks abuse will get worse when things open more. In 2008, she said she saw calls for help drop during the Great Recession and pick back up in 2009 and 2010.
Even with this expected wave, Michigan doesn't have major changes related to domestic violence funding in the 2022 executive budget recommendation, said Kurt Weiss, state budget office spokesman. It does include a $500,000 allocation to create a victim confidentiality program to help survivors of abuse keep their personal information safe.
At the federal level, the U.S. House voted in March to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which aims to reduce domestic and sexual violence and improve the response to it through a variety of grant programs. It now is waiting for the U.S. Senate's vote.
Every year the Violence Policy Center, based in Washington, D.C., releases a “When Men Murder Women” report, which tracks the rates men murder women to provide a “stark reminder that domestic violence and guns make a deadly combination.”
“I think in Michigan one of the things that I’m seeing is there’s more of an idea that we have a good handle on domestic violence here and I think what we’re seeing in the field is, ‘No we don’t.’ We still need to make some more progress to help protect these victims," Boettcher said.