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With stay-at-home orders issued in Tennessee, unemployment skyrocketing and financial stress mounting, domestic violence victims may find themselves stuck with their abusers in increasingly tense situations amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Already in Chattanooga, there has been a 24% increase in domestic violence reports during March this year compared to last. Across Hamilton County, the increase has been 89%.

Experts warn the number of reports will only continue to rise the longer the crisis lasts.

"The longer a person who's getting victimized is sheltering in place with the person who is abusing them, and they have no way out, all of the things that create that cycle of violence are going to trigger quicker," said Regina McDevitt, chief operations officer for the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults.

"So you're going to see the violence escalates; you're going to see the intensity of the violence escalates, as well, I believe," she said. "And I think that we'll have more people getting hurt probably more so than in the general sense that we've seen in the past."

It's an unintended consequence of the efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, said Ruben Muriente, interim executive director at the Family Justice Center.

Courts have extended expiration dates for orders of protection, and local victim advocacy organizations continue to serve victims and families. But they've had to adjust the way they operate in order to abide by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Most are providing virtual case management, counseling and supervised visitations. The hotlines and office numbers are still being manned. And, while most organizations are limiting the number of people in their buildings, they are still open — many just by appointment.

Currently, the majority of cases being reported to the Family Justice Center are first-time callers, Muriente said.

Need help?

If you are suffering any form of intimate partner abuse, you can call the domestic violence and sexual assault crisis hotline at 423-755-2700 that is available 24/7. All services — for both men and women — are free and confidential. In an emergency situation, dial 911.

But that doesn't mean it's the first time abuse has happened. In many cases, abuse has likely been going on since before the pandemic began, he said. People get used to a level of violence. So when they decide to make the call for help, the violence has often risen to a level that the victim fears for their life.

"People in unhealthy relationships kind of have their own compass in terms of 'Is this getting more dangerous than I'm comfortable with?'" Muriente said. "There are many victims who remain in abusive relationships for many, many reasons."

Now, though, it seems victims' sense of what rises to a need to seek help "is heightened, if anything," he said. "Being in an extended amount of time at home with somebody who is abusive, you are now less likely to be as tolerant as you would have in the past."

The increase in calls is something police expected and have prepared for, Chattanooga Police Department Chief David Roddy told City Council members during their March 31 council meeting. And, while the department has encouraged officers to issue citations instead of arrests when possible, arrests for domestic violence are still being made without exception.

"It's still required by [Tennessee law] that a primary aggressor, if identified, shall be arrested — that's the language written into the law," Roddy said. "An individual that is abusing or harming a loved one and [the officer is] able to prove that, that perpetrator will still be placed in custody and will still be taken to the Hamilton County Jail. That is not changing. We are not doing citations for that, we're not turning a blind eye to that."

For social workers, the biggest concern is that someone will die. Already last year, Chattanooga saw a spike in domestic violence-related killings.

"That's always our worst-case-scenario type of thing," Muriente said. "We try to do everything that we can to hopefully avoid that, but obviously that's not necessarily in our control."

He and others in his field encourage victims to make the call, whether it's to 911 or to the crisis hotline: 423-755-2700.

What happens when you call 911

Chattanooga police officers will respond and asses the situation. If a primary aggressor can be determined, that person will be arrested. Once booked, it's required they be held on a 12-hour hold. Additionally, if the perpetrator was in violation of a protective order or if it was in violation of release conditions, they can be held until the next court date, which is typically the next business day.

At the scene, officers will conduct what is called a "lethality assessment." It involves a questionnaire designed to provide an accurate picture of how dangerous the victim's domestic situation is. Some victims are prompted to call a domestic violence hotline. Other times, case workers follow up with them and walk them through their options.

"The more times you call, the more evidence there is against the other person," Muriente said, adding that once an arrest is made, the aggressor is placed on a 12-hour hold in jail, which "would allow the victim to find a safe place to stay."

Victim advocates offer help in coming up with a safety strategy to either leave or be able to notify friends or family when needed. And the Partnership manages a shelter.

As of Friday, the shelter still had room.

"We're able to give people their own individual rooms so they're able to actually stay to themselves and really practice that social distancing in a healthy way," McDevitt said, adding that a room has been set aside to accommodate a need for quarantine. Face masks, hand sanitizer and thermometers also are being provided, though they will soon need more, she said. Those looking to donate should call the Partnership's office at 423-755-2700.

"It is important that people don't turn a blind eye," McDevitt said. "If you're afraid that something's happening in the house next to you and you hear stuff, go ahead and call 911 I think it's important for people to be a neighbor. It's hard to do when you're social distancing, but you can still hear — sometimes through the wall — what's happening in someone's home. Just be vigilant."

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @Hughes Rosana.

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