Sheltering in place and limiting contact with others has been a necessity to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to health officials, but in some cases these conditions have inadvertently also created potentially dangerous situations for residents living in abusive environments.
Services for treating people who are in violent domestic situations have been forced to adapt due to the ongoing pandemic -- situations that have in some cases become more dangerous due to people being forced to quarantine with their abusers.
"It's very scary because these people are very unpredictable and part of the safety planning is figuring out what you can do," Vicki Thompson, director of domestic violence services at Tri-Valley Haven, told the Weekly. "We're still offering all of our services, but they have changed."
Headquartered in Livermore, Tri-Valley Haven serves residents throughout the region with counseling, homelessness, domestic abuse and legal advice services, among other support programs.
While all of its domestic violence services are still available, the group has been forced to adapt in order to continue services for its clients during the pandemic, according to Thompson.
Removing people from dangerous situations is a top priority for the group, so housing becomes a necessity once people leave abusive environments. To this end, Tri-Valley Haven offers a shelter for adults and children.
Residents can still find shelter through Tri-Valley Haven -- the group is currently housing approximately 30 adults and children. However, due to the pandemic, the group has lowered its onsite shelter population to allow for social distancing. Instead, overflow population is housed at hotels where case workers will provide regular check-ins as well as gift cards for food.
Tri-Valley Haven also has its Domestic Violence Housing First program that assists survivors of domestic violence in overcoming barriers to obtaining or retaining housing; this includes case management and cash assistance for moving, utility bills and other housing-related costs.
"It's very individualized based on what somebody needs. We also have a transitional housing program where some families can stay with us for up to two years if they have long-term goals they are working for," Thompson said.
Counseling services are also still available for residents, but have transitioned to a virtual telehealth model to prevent exposure to the virus.
In-person restraining order courses have also been suspended due to the pandemic, but residents can contact Tri-Valley Haven to receive legal advice on acquiring a restraining order from an abusive partner.
Abuse during the pandemic has sometimes taken a different form, according to Thompson, who described abusive partners sometimes changing their own habits habits around different paranoia related to the virus.
"We've had some people say they were strictly forbidden to leave the house because of the virus. We've also heard of cases where the abuser is very paranoid about getting it, telling people, 'You go out, you do the shopping, because I'm not going to get COVID,'" Thompson said.
While some agencies have reported higher numbers of domestic abuse cases during the pandemic, Thompson said it is often difficult to gauge the rates locally due to cases often not getting reported -- especially when someone is sheltering-in-place with their abuser and unable to do so safely.
"It's really difficult to gauge that because it may be more dangerous for people to report when they are sheltering in place with an abuser or where they are maybe afraid to leave. Our requests for shelter have stayed about the same, maybe a slight increase," she said.
"What we have seen though is that people often stay a shorter period of time. If they have the option to move in with family or friends, they feel safer doing that then staying with a shelter," Thompson added.
Reported cases of domestic violence have risen slightly in Pleasanton during the pandemic, according to Pleasanton police Sgt. Marty Billdt, who said that in 2020 Pleasanton police reported 122 cases compared to 110 in 2019.
"Aside from COVID-19 safety protocols, the Pleasanton Police Department has not changed its procedure when responding to reports of domestic violence," Billdt added. "We take each case very seriously and would like to remind survivors or witnesses of domestic violence that they can call our department without fear: 9-1-1 or 925-931-5100."
For residents who may suspect a friend, loved one or neighbor may be in an abusive environment, Thompson advised that instead of trying to tell someone what to do, it is better to check in on them and ask how they can help.
"Just let the person know that you are concerned. Don't say 'you have to do this, you have to leave, you have to go to Tri-Valley Haven, you have to go to police' -- because if the person isn't ready to do any of those things, if they feel they can't do it safely, it is just going to drive a wedge there," she said. "Maybe just ask 'are you OK? Is there something I can do to help?'"
"Just let them know you are there for them and meet them where they are at. Just know that leaving an abusive partner is a process. Most people in abusive relationships leave seven times before they stay out for good," Thompson added.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be contacted several ways:
Live chat: www.thehotline.org.
The Tri-Valley Haven's crisis line continues uninterrupted and can be contacted at 925-449-5842 or 1-800-884-8119.