Domestic abuse has risen during the pandemic. Groups like the House of Ruth are ready.
October 1, 2020
But when schools closed in March, she couldn’t go to her job as a school art therapist and the boys stayed home, watching the rage of their mom’s boyfriend build and burst.
“Because of covid, there was no escape,” she said. “And my sons saw the abuse. And the fear I saw in their eyes was the same fear I had in my eyes when I was little and put in foster care.”
Like this mom, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was scared that her abuser would find her, thousands of others saw dangerous relationships worsen when the pandemic shrank their worlds.
It was her pastor who sensed the woman’s plight and pointed her toward the House of Ruth, where she could stay in a safe house.
Since the shutdown began in March, the House of Ruth has moved 16 women, many with children, into its emergency shelters, said Elizabeth Kiker, development director for the D.C.-based nonprofit organization.
That’s the same number it moved in last year during this time. Except this year, it had double the number of requests, she said.
So it’s perfect timing that House of Ruth this week opened Kidspace, a beautiful facility where these children — and the others who will follow as the pandemic drags on — have a place to safely play, learn and heal.
The same surge in abuse during the pandemic happened at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where radiologists found nearly double the “total number of victims sustaining injuries due to strangulation, stab injuries, burns or use of weapons such as knives, guns and other objects” this spring compared to the same period during the past two years, according to a study published in the journal Radiology.
The number of reported abuse cases, however, dropped by nearly half at the hospital, according to the study.
The paper trails aren’t being made, but the bodies of abused women are telling the real story. They’re trapped. And it’s harder to get help.
The counselors at House of Ruth knew this was going to happen — more abuse, fewer opportunities for escape. They’d have to find a new way to operate.
“Our staff was like doctors and nurses going into a war zone,” Executive Director Sandra Jackson said.
They received more calls for help as soon as the shutdown happened, but the counseling sessions were cut short — women didn’t feel safe talking while trapped at home with their abusers, who might overhear a call for help.
“We had to find a way to talk to them,” Jackson said. “So we helped people find a way to take a walk away and make the call, or we found a safe word they can use on the phone or text when they were in trouble, like telling them: ‘Say toilet paper if you need to talk right now or if you can’t stay there any longer.’ ”
The pandemic — and the high unemployment rate, evaporated savings, and the uncertain future it brings — has made it even harder for women to disentangle themselves from dangerous relationships.
“Their biggest fears about leaving are that they would end up homeless,” Jackson said. And, she added, they are afraid for their kids: Is it safer to stay in an abusive situation and know what you’re protecting them from? Or is it worth it to run?
That’s why the organization pushed ahead with opening its $7 million Kidspace this week.
It’s a gorgeous place, the kind any parent would love to send their kid to, complete with dream play equipment and those teeny-tiny blond-wood chairs. But it also has counselors who know the signs of trauma and how to help children who have lived through horror.
And the place has embassy-level security measures to make sure the kids are safe from the abusers they are trying to flee. Staff members came up to me the second I pulled up to check it out the other day.
It’s the hallmark of House of Ruth, that level of security. Their safe houses are all over D.C., tucked away in neighborhoods and indistinguishable from other homes.
When that mom realized that she couldn’t protect her boys the way she had before the pandemic, she took her pastor’s advice and contacted House of Ruth for help.
Her pastor came to her house that scary June night, loaded all their clothes and toys into a truck and took the three to a motel before a spot at House of Ruth was ready for them.
“The day after we left in that truck, he came looking for us everywhere,” she said. “He was angry and busted down the door of my mom’s place looking for us. We were lucky he didn’t find us.”
She got the safe house space on June 25, the same day that Veronica Maz, who founded House of Ruth in the 1970s, died at age 89.
Once she settled into her clean and fresh apartment, she finally exhaled and experienced something new.
“Peace,” she said. “My boys were so excited when they got to the apartment because they’ve never had their own room before. But for me? It was a feeling of peace and relief I’ve never felt before.”
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-SAFE (7233). For counseling, housing or child care, call House of Ruth at 202-667-7001.