The shelter-in-place orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus can have negative impacts on victims of domestic violence, but clinics in Athens are still helping people experiencing interpersonal violence.

Mayor Kelly Girtz and the Athens-Clarke County Commission are urging Athens residents to stay home and shelter in place despite Gov. Brian Kemp’s ongoing plans to reopen the state as confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to increase in Georgia.

For people at risk of domestic or sexual violence, this attempt at safety may actually put them in harm’s way, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

National data has indicated an increase in incidents of interpersonal violence in recent weeks, according to The New York Times. While experts expect more domestic violence incidents are occuring, Athens-Clarke County police and UGA law school’s Jane W. Wilson Family Justice Clinic have received fewer reports than in previous years around the same time.

This decrease in calls is likely due to at-risk individuals being sheltered in their homes with an abuser, according to a blog post from the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Abusers may take this opportunity to exert control over the victim.

“In a time where companies may be encouraging that their employees work remotely, and the CDC is encouraging ‘social distancing,’ an abuser may take advantage of an already stressful situation to gain more control,” the post reads.

Shelters and resources are still available for domestic and sexual abuse victims, even though some Athens businesses and the University of Georgia remain closed.

Project Safe, an Athens nonprofit that aims to end domestic violence, still operates a hotline. It has an outreach center which accepts appointments, although it is taking extra safety measures now.

Stephanie Molkentin, community involvement and volunteer coordinator for Project Safe, said they are seeing one person at a time in a room “large enough for social distancing.” Additionally, the organization also has a confidential emergency shelter.

People looking to seek shelter can call the hotline to talk to a Project Safe team member. Due to COVID-19, Molkentin said staff members and residents wear masks and observe social distancing.

The uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak gives abusers the opportunity to exert more power over their victims, Molkentin said. Because many businesses and organizations are closed, abusers “might tell their partners that nothing is open and even the police can’t help them,” Molkentin said in an email.

If victims aren’t able to socialize with friends or leave the house to go to work, they may not get the assistance they need although police are still responding to reports, Molkentin said.

“The isolation makes it really risky for people who are experiencing domestic violence,” Molkentin said. “Those people may not have a bruise on them, but they may be convinced that the police aren’t going to answer a 911 call or that Project Safe is not operating even though we are.”

Unofficial statistics have shown that reports of family violence crimes, domestic calls for service and all domestic cases have decreased, according to the Athens-Clarke County Police Department.

Lt. John Radford said in an email ACCPD does not know the reason for the downturn in reports although he predicts it may be because victims sheltering in place with their abuser.

Another resource for members of the UGA community at risk of violence is Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention, a service provided by UGA’s University Health Center.

RSVP acts as a liaison between victims of domestic violence and law enforcement, medical providers, UGA, mental health professionals and other agencies, according to its website. RSVP also offers a free and confidential 24-hour hotline that is still in operation.

In an email to The Red & Black, Stan Jackson, assistant to the vice president for Student Affairs, said that RSVP is unable to take walk-ins, although the hotline is still operating for any UGA students needing support or services.

“Advocates are able to provide in-person accompaniment when needed, observing appropriate social distancing precautions, in addition to coordinating other services via phone,” Jackson said in the email.

Christine Scartz, UGA School of Law clinical assistant professor and director of the Family Justice Clinic, works with law students to represent low-income victims of domestic abuse regarding protective orders. Scartz acknowledged the uptick in domestic abuse worldwide, although she said she’s noticed a decrease in the amount of calls the clinic has received in recent weeks.

Scartz said she believes the clinic’s decrease in calls is due to victims of abuse temporarily shifting their focus to other day-to-day life issues, such as paying bills or taking care of children, due to the uncertainty of COVID-19.

She said filing legal action, such as filing for divorce from an abuser, has moved to the back burner for many victims. Instead, Scartz said many people are concerned with getting through day-to-day life, such as paying bills and taking care of children.

Molkentin said Project Safe has seen the same decrease in calls reporting abuse. In past times of crisis, such as natural disasters, Molkentin said there is often a dip in domestic violence reports. Even without sheltering in place, she said intimate partner violence is often underreported.

“We expect to see an increase in calls soon and we’re ready for them,” Molkentin said.

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