Vanessa Timmons, executive director of the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence
Vanessa Timmons, executive director of the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence


This is the first in a two-part series on domestic violence. The first piece looks at how the pandemic has affected victims and the second examines domestic violence in Catholic families, misconceptions about abuse, and how faith communities can help.

Home meant safety for many Americans as the coronavirus spread across the country last year. But it meant panic and pain for women abused by their spouse, boyfriend or partner.

Punches, slaps, threats to flee with the children, a string of humiliating names, sex without consent. Behind the walls of apartment buildings, modest homes and mansions, such psychological and physical violence escalated.

Now, as the pandemic’s severity wanes in Oregon and nationwide, victim advocates and service providers, including Catholic nonprofits, are reflecting on the past year and planning for the future. There’s not a sense of relief. They worry that while health and economic uncertainties remain, abuse will continue to persist at high rates. And they are concerned about the lasting consequences.

“I absolutely see a long-term impact of the pandemic on survivors,” said Vanessa Timmons, executive director of the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “Stress and violence in isolation create trauma, and the effects will be seen not only in adults but kids, teens and the babies whose mothers’ bodies were flooded with stress during pregnancy.”

‘It’s shocking’

Even before the pandemic, 1 in 4 women experienced intimate partner violence. Though such violence has a disproportionate impact on communities of color and other marginalized groups, the abuse occurs across all races, cultures, sexual orientations, socioeconomic classes and religions.

“Faith is not a protective factor against domestic violence like you’d hope it would be,” said Sharon O’Brien, co-founder of Maryland-based Catholics for Family Peace, which conducts research and provides faith-based resources for diocesan and parish leaders.

Men experience domestic violence, but women make up the majority of victims. “The batterer may be a ‘good provider’ and a respected member of his church and community,” write the U.S. bishops in their pastoral letter on domestic violence. Issued in 1992 and updated in 2002, it clearly states that violence against women is sinful.

Pope Francis repeatedly addresses domestic violence and highlights how the COVID-19 pandemic has increased instances of abuse worldwide. In a February video message, he called violence against women “acts of cowardice and a degradation of all humanity.”

“It’s shocking how many women are beaten, insulted and raped,” said the pope.

An alarming combination

Immediately after stay-at-home orders went into effect across the country in March 2020, there was an eerie silence at many domestic abuse hotlines and shelters.

“When you are quarantining at home with your abuser there is little or no opportunity to dial that call for help,” said Gloria Terry, a Catholic who is CEO of the Texas Council on Family Violence and board chair of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “There was this notable quiet.”

As victims grew more desperate and found creative ways to reach out, the appeals for assistance began to increase. In April the volume of texts and calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline was 15% higher than the previous year. In certain parts of the country, calls to local hotlines rose more drastically — for example by 30% in New York.

Emmy Ritter is executive director of Raphael House of Portland, which provides emergency shelter and wraparound services to survivors of domestic abuse. She said domestic violence is cyclical, and the level of danger goes up when there are additional stressors and added isolation. Of course the pandemic meant perpetrators were home with their families almost constantly and, for some families, stress was at extreme levels.

Schools and child care facilities closed and there were income and job losses. Alcohol use soared in response to the strain.

“Even folks who’d not experienced domestic violence before did because of the combination of factors,” said Perla Estrada, associate director of programs and advocacy for UNICA, offering services for Latino survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. UNICA is part of El Programa Hispano Católico, a Portland nonprofit that grew out of Catholic Charities of Oregon.

“If you don’t know how you are going to feed your family or make rent, and the kids are being rambunctious from being cooped up and you feel like you can’t get anything done, you are increasingly likely to lash out if you don’t have the emotional capacity and tools to cope,” Estrada said.

Rose Bak, chief program officer for Catholic Charities of Oregon, previously oversaw domestic violence services for Oregon’s Multnomah County. “Before COVID-19, domestic violence advocates could meet with a mother at a library or at McDonald’s after she drops the kids off at school,” said Bak. “During the pandemic there were fewer opportunities to secretly meet with an advocate and plan a departure.”

Meanwhile, mandated reporters of abuse such as teachers, child care providers and clinicians had fewer interactions with children and families and fewer opportunities to recognize and report signs of abuse.

Support from Catholic nonprofits

Catholic Charities of Oregon for years has offered low-cost and free legal services to undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence, and it sustained its services amid the pandemic. With legal status, women are able to receive work authorization and get a driver’s license, which help them gain financial independence and care for their children.

Bak and a colleague are looking at ways to establish a certified, comprehensive domestic abuse program within the agency. It’s a vision made more urgent by the pandemic, said Bak.

Throughout the past year, UNICA has continued its programming with some modifications. For survivors who have been able to reach out, staff have organized virtual support groups, offered case management and helped survivors navigate the legal system.

When no help comes

In the initial months of the pandemic many law enforcement agencies nationwide changed the way they responded to service calls in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19. In mid-March, for example, the Portland Police Bureau reduced the number of calls that it dispatched officers to in person. One consequence was that domestic abuse victims did not always receive the help they needed.

“It was an extraordinary time, and people were trying to keep the coronavirus out of shelters, police units and jails,” said Terry, of the Texas Council on Family Violence.

Not all victims view the police as a source of protection, however. “For people of color there are concerns about racial profiling,” said Ritter. “Calling the police might not feel like a safe option.” Latinos who are undocumented or have family members who lack documentation may worry that contact with law enforcement could mean deportation, added Estrada.

In the Portland region during the summer months, police struggled to staff the nightly protests while also responding to urgent calls for service throughout the city.

“I know some instances where calls were held for up to three hours before there was an available officer to help,” said Portland police Sgt. Robert Searle of the special victims unit. “If a survivor of domestic violence calls for help and no one comes for several hours, the next time it happens they likely aren’t going to make the call. It creates a cycle of helplessness.”

Advocates explain that abuse has to do with control. “If the resources someone has are diminished and the police are not showing up, it provides an amazing opportunity for abusers to increase their tactics of control,” Ritter said.

A consequence of that increased control, coupled with elevated stress, was more severe forms of abuse. For instance, Terry’s agency in Texas analyzed data from the state’s department of public safety and found a 41% increase in domestic-violence-related calls in which a firearm was present.

Verbal abuse, though, can be just as horrific as physical violence, said Timmons at the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

“I can tell you — and I’ve spoken to hundreds of survivors — words hit as hard as a fists,” she said. “The bruises are emotional, long-lasting, scaring, and the impact can be generational. Some have said emotional abuse is even more devastating because there are no scars to show friends and family.”

A capacity crisis

On average, victims of domestic violence make seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship before staying away permanently, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Shelters, providing secure accommodations and resources, play a vital role for victims trying to break away.

When the pandemic arrived, it compounded an existing capacity crisis at shelters across the country. According to pre-pandemic figures compiled by Terry’s organization, 42% of requests for emergency shelters went unmet in Texas because of capacity issues. The three shelters in Multnomah County are 100% full all the time, said Ritter.

Although many emergency shelters quickly were able to find hotels at which to shelter survivors and maintain social distancing, some shelters temporarily closed. Wait times grew longer and the possibility of securing a bed was even less attainable.

Just recently a mother of two teenagers contacted Terry. “They were sleeping in their car and kept moving the car each night to be safe from abuse,” she said. The mom was a state employee and worked full time.

“Here was someone with a level of resources but still she couldn’t find safety since shelters in the area were full,” said Terry. Her organization eventually was able to secure safe housing for the mom and her kids.

Late last summer, Oregonians grappled with another disaster as fires ravaged entire towns. In areas that needed to evacuate, hotels sheltering survivors turned all their beds over to the Red Cross. Three domestic abuse organizations had to evacuate, and an emergency shelter in Southern Oregon barely escaped the fire and staff lost homes.

This spring shelters slowly are moving back to normal capacity. But space still does not meet demand, and there are additional obstacles remaining for Latino and immigrant populations. Survivors typically must quarantine for two weeks prior to entering a shelter or be fully vaccinated, “both of which are often difficult tasks for the people we serve,” Estrada said.

She added that service providers across Oregon are worried that the eviction moratorium is set to expire June 30. “We know that individuals who lack safe housing are more likely to be victimized as they desperately seek some form of shelter to avoid houselessness,” said Estrada.

Looking ahead

With vaccines readily available in most parts of the country and schools and child care facilities now fully or partially open, the majority of victims no longer are trapped at home. Yet advocates and service agencies anticipate a sustained impact of the pandemic.

Ritter said that over the past year there were survivors “who daily called upon strength that we cannot imagine.”

“Now they likely are facing trauma and possibly trauma bonding with their children. They had to survive together.”

Abuse also affects babies in the womb. Violence- and stress-triggered complications include preterm delivery, placental abruption and increased risk of impeded brain and immune system development.

There are added concerns that domestic violence typically increases in the months and years following natural disasters, something advocates observed post-Hurricane Harvey, the storm that made landfall on Texas and Louisiana in 2017.

“Many of these stressors we saw after Hurricane Harvey — around health and well-being, housing and job loss — have been present during the pandemic,” said Terry. “We believe we are going to see an escalation in the frequency of violence down the road like we did after Harvey.”

Advocates and service providers are preparing through increased collaboration.

“We are thinking about strengthening partnerships across the board,” said Timmons. “I’m calling it a network of compassion — meaning there’s no wrong connection.”

Those connections should be with law enforcement, social services, and the civil and criminal justice system, said Terry. Families and faith communities also have a critical role to play.

“This is pro-life issue that Catholics should care about,” said O’Brien of Catholics for Family Peace. The victims and those who abuse “are our sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews,” she said. “They are our family members, our community.”

‘The sky’s the limit’

When survivors are able leave their abuser and can access support, outcomes can be dramatic, said Ritter. “It’s already an act of courage to come into a shelter, and to do it during the pandemic is incredible. If they can do that, the sky’s the limit.”

She recalled one woman with two sons who arrived at Raphael House of Portland at the start of the pandemic. She’d been in a dangerous situation where a shooting was involved.

Over time, staff was able to connect the mother with housing and assist with job applications.

“The woman got a job in another nonprofit and now is helping others,” Ritter said. “It’s not a lot of work on our part to help survivors truly transform their lives.”

To build up “their own internal power they just need someone to reflect that power back to them,” she added. “I’ve been in this work for almost 30 years and I’ve seen what that remarkable reality looks like every day.”

National Domestic Violence Hotline

The hotline provides crisis intervention and referrals to local service providers. Call 800-799-SAFE (7233) or 800-787-3224 (TTY). For more information, go to