When home isn’t safe: Domestic violence during a pandemic

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Eric Leckie 06/07/2020

Spurred by the threat of a deadly coronavirus outbreak, many Americans — including those in the military community — have sought shelter in the safety of their homes, whether out of caution, necessity or government mandates.

But what happens when home isn’t safe?

Terms such as “self-isolation” and “social distancing” take on an ominous meaning for those whose homes are places of fear. The financial, emotional and mental tolls wreaked by the pandemic can make unhealthy or abusive relationships worse, and some abusers try to turn COVID-19 into a tool to increase control over their families.

Even as some restrictions loosen, many people still are spending more time at home — and it’s unclear what may happen when cold and flu season ramps up in the fall.

The U.S. military suggests several steps to protect yourself and any children during the pandemic. But please remember, frontline help is always available in emergencies — do not hesitate to call 911 or your military law enforcement office if you are in immediate danger or if you or your loved ones are being threatened.

CHECK IN REGULARLY WITH FRIENDS AND FAMILY

Technology doesn’t replace personal interactions, but it certainly helps. Maintain regular contact with your loved ones and others in your community via texting, emails, video calls, phone calls, apps — whatever you have available.

An Auburn University professor prefers the term “physical distancing” because it more clearly depicts that social interaction is more necessary than ever. As Professor Francesca Adler-Baeder puts it, “we know from decades of research that our physical health, mental health and our relational health are inextricably linked.”

The boost that social contact provides to mental and emotional health can help you think more clearly and better assess your situation. But it also lets your loved ones know you are OK.

Consider checking in with a certain person daily for that purpose, and establish a way for them to get ahold of you in emergencies. In addition, a discreet code word or phrase can alert them if you are in danger or need help. Some abusers monitor communications; here are tips for cell phone safety, and if you worry that someone is tracking your computer use, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

FIND WAYS TO CARE FOR YOURSELF

In addition to preserving a healthy social network, carving out daily time for rituals that improve mental and emotional health — and perhaps give you some space —make you more resilient.

The idea of self-care may seem superficial amid feelings of panic, anxiety or depression about your relationship. In that case, self-care means reaching out for support. Military OneSource offers non-medical counseling; call support staff at your installation’s Family Advocacy Program; or reach an advocate day or night at the National Domestic Violence Hotline by phone (800-799-7233) or chat at thehotline.org. Apart from these resources, any small space you can find will help, particularly if you also are caring for children.

Some general self-care tips from Harvard Medical School include:

  • Recognize the heavy load caused by your situation. Allow yourself to grieve the changes in your life and to emotionally check out for just a bit in healthy ways, such as by meditating.
  • Keep your body running well by aiming for nutritious meals.
  • Make sure you get enough sleep.
  • Remember and acknowledge the good in your life, no matter how small.

MAKE A SAFETY PLAN

Don’t wait until an unhealthy relationship has escalated to violence or abuse to make a plan for finding space away from your partner.

Victim advocates at your installation’s Family Advocacy Program can help you create a safety plan or come up with safe places to go for some space. A safety plan offers personalized and practical ways to stay safe while in a relationship, leaving or after leaving. It addresses issues such as coping with emotions, communicating the abuse to friends and family, and taking legal action. It will offer guidance for multiple scenarios so that in the midst of a crisis, when it may be difficult to think clearly, you have a step-by-step plan. Here is an interactive guide to safety planning.

SEEK THE RIGHT LEGAL HELP

The courts can help with protections or divorce, and they can make sure you are provided for financially.

Initially, you can get free legal advice from your installation legal assistance office. But for situations that require representation in civil court or that involve contested issues (i.e. child custody, alimony, child support, or division of assets), you’ll need to find a civilian lawyer with experience in military law to advocate for you and ensure you get all the benefits to which you’re entitled:

  • Military retirement pay often is a key asset in these cases.
  • The Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act grants benefits to some victims of spousal or child abuse.
  • In certain situations, un-remarried former spouses of military members can get medical, commissary, exchange and theater privileges.

If you have been the victim of domestic violence and need a zealous advocate, Invictus Law can help. Our firm is experienced with both military and family law, and we can offer guidance during a free consultation. Please contact us online or at (757) 337-3737. We are happy to provide appointments via phone or video chat comply with social distancing recommendations.

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