During lockdown, Kiesha Preston has heard from many people facing physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse that the violence against them is escalating without reprieve.
Stress and isolation create combustible tensions. A lack of privacy subjects many victims to closer surveillance by their abuser, making it difficult to call crisis hotlines, for example. And Preston worries that high unemployment will make it harder to afford moving out — though she hopes that this won't stop anyone who is being abused from reaching out. There are resources available to help you, she says.
"Financial resources are a huge factor in being able to get away from your abuser, and right now we are in an economic crisis" in addition to being socially isolated, says Preston, an advocate for survivors of domestic abuse. "This honestly creates a situation where it's easier for abusers to utilize finances as a tool of abuse."
One consequence of COVID-19 is a projected global increase in domestic violence, including intimate partner violence. As many areas of the United States loosen quarantine restrictions, that's creating more opportunities for people to flee their abusers, but technology and a lack of money often make those escapes more complicated.
Preston speaks from experience.
After her husband moved out of their Roanoke, Va., home five years ago, she says technology and money became his primary weapons to continue the abuse. He attacked her on social media, posting up to 15 times a day, and monitored her comings and goings through the home security system.
"He was actually hiding in the bushes and overheard a phone conversation that I was having with a friend, didn't like what I said and came out and it became a physical altercation," she says.
He also drained their accounts, leaving Preston, who was a student at the time, with no money to feed their three children or to fix the broken oil heater. She and her kids had to huddle around space heaters and an open oven when it got cold. Preston eventually faced a lender's foreclosure on the home and struggled to find a new place to rent.
"For a good six months, almost daily, I was applying for housing and getting turned away," she says.
So advocacy groups are now trying to address the economic needs that arise when violence escalates in homes.
You're not alone
The Salvation Army in Dallas-Fort Worth now delivers food, for example, as a way of keeping in touch with people who signal they are being abused.
"We have one case manager that is slipping little notes into ... the bread bag, just to make sure that we're trying to keep mom safe" or help her leave if she wishes to, says Beckie Wach, the nonprofit's executive director.
Those ready to leave often cannot find places to go, she says. Shelters are open but often full, and the coronavirus pandemic complicates staying with relatives. So, many are sleeping in their cars in the parking lots behind Walmarts and schools, Wach says, adding, "We have street outreach teams that go out to those hot spots."
All around the U.S., there's demand for safe housing.
Peace Over Violence, an anti-sexual and domestic abuse group in Los Angeles, joined with other groups to establish a hotline to help relocate victims. "We placed 40 people in a week," says Patti Giggans, the advocacy group's CEO. She says she expects to see needs continue to spike.
But fleeing is just the beginning, says Giggans. Once victims are moved, she says, many are then tracked by perpetrators through their phones.
"It's not so much you're looking over your shoulder for someone anymore — it's with you. It's in your purse. It's in your pocket," she says.
Technology can, essentially, become a form of remote control. Some abusers hack into home systems like Nest to blast music through home sound systems or jack the thermostat to uninhabitable temperatures, says Erica Olsen, director of the Safety Net Project with the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
"That could be something the abuser is doing even when the victim's not home," Olsen says, "because they're trying to mess with the bills — it's where technology, abuse and financial abuse intersect."
In short, enduring the many forms of abuse can feel like a never-ending ordeal.
Building a new life
But survivor-turned-advocate Kiesha Preston says she is now free. Years of court battles finally stopped the financial abuse and cyberbullying from her ex-husband. And she recently helped write a new state law in Virginia that bars landlords from turning away abuse victims who lack a good credit history. That law was adopted in March.
"I'm repairing my credit, and I'm looking into possibly becoming a homeowner again in the near future," Preston says. "I'm changing state laws and I'm advocating for other victims, and I just never would have thought that any of this would be possible when I was going through it."
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, use a safe computer and contact help. That can include a local shelter, or call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Quarantines are easing, and that's opening windows for people who are fleeing domestic abuse. But the window is not entirely open. Here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: During lockdown, Kiesha Preston's heard from many people facing abuse.
KIESHA PRESTON: It's happening on a more regular basis, and there is no reprieve from it.
NOGUCHI: Stress and isolation create combustible tension. A lack of privacy subjects many victims to closer surveillance by their abuser, making it difficult to call crisis hotlines, for example. And Preston worries high unemployment will make it harder to afford moving out.
PRESTON: I definitely think it creates a different level of terror.
NOGUCHI: It took years for Preston to recognize abuse in her own marriage. After her husband left five years ago, she says technology and money became his primary weapons. He attacked her on social media, posting up to 15 times a day. He monitored her whereabouts digitally as well.
PRESTON: I was changing the locks on the door. And I guess he noticed through the whole security system that the door was open, so he decided to come and see what was going on.
NOGUCHI: Preston says he parked a block away, hid in the bushes, then ambushed her. Also, he drained their joint accounts. Preston, a student in Roanoke at the time, had no money to feed their three children or to fix the broken oil heater.
PRESTON: My kids were literally camping out in the living room, surrounded by space heaters, with the oven open to keep warm. And for, like, a good six months or possibly more, almost daily, I was applying for housing and getting turned away.
NOGUCHI: Now Preston is an advocate for abuse survivors. She worries about the pandemic's financial toll on others.
PRESTON: This, honestly, creates a situation where it's easier for abusers to utilize finances as a tool of abuse.
NOGUCHI: In fact, the Salvation Army in Dallas-Fort Worth changed its outreach during the pandemic to address economic needs as well as domestic abuse. Beckie Wach is the nonprofit's executive director. She says it now delivers food as a way to contact victims.
BECKIE WACH: We have one case manager that is slipping little notes into - whether it's the bread bag or - you know, just to make sure that we're just trying to keep moms safe.
NOGUCHI: Many can't find places to go.
WACH: Moms will go and live out in their cars, and they may drive to a place where they feel safe. That might be in a Walmart parking lot. That could be in their school parking lot. And so we have street outreach teams that go out to those hot spots.
NOGUCHI: All around the country, there's demand for safe housing. Peace Over Violence in Los Angeles started a new hotline to help relocate victims. Patti Giggans is the advocacy group's CEO.
PATTI GIGGANS: We placed 40 people in a week.
NOGUCHI: Fleeing is just the beginning. Most victims, she says, are then tracked through their phones.
GIGGANS: It's not so much you're looking over your shoulder for someone anymore; it's like - it's in your phone. It's with you. It's in your purse. It's in your pocket.
NOGUCHI: Technology becomes, essentially, a remote control. Erica Olsen is a director with the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She says abusers remotely blast music through home sound systems or jack up the thermostat.
ERICA OLSEN: And a lot of times, that could be something the abuser is doing even when the striver's (ph) not home because they're trying to mess with the bills. It's where technology, abuse and financial abuse intersect.
NOGUCHI: In short, it can feel like a never-ending ordeal. But Kiesha Preston, the victim-turned-advocate, says she is now free. Years of court battles finally stopped the financial- and cyberbullying. She helped write a new law barring landlords from turning away abuse victims because of poor credit. That Virginia law was adopted in March.
PRESTON: I'm repairing my credit. And, you know, I'm looking into possibly becoming a homeowner again in the near future. And, you know, I'm changing state laws, and I'm advocating for other victims. And I just - I never would have thought that any of this would be possible when I was going through it.
NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FAODAIL'S "GAEL")
KING: If you are dealing with domestic abuse, find a safe place and call 911 or the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
(SOUNDBITE OF FAODAIL'S "GAEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.