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Domestic Abuse Can Escalate In Pandemic And Continue Even If You Get Away


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.


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.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.