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Why advocates are concerned for victims of abuse during pandemic
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Calls to the Gateway Domestic Violence Center have not gone up during this coronavirus outbreak and shelter-in-place order, and that concerns its executive director, Jessica Butler.

Her worry is that people may not be able to call for help or know the center is still operating, answering the hotline 24/7.

Gainesville psychotherapist Rachel Greene Ayers said the same goes for teachers, social workers and counselors who are not around children right now who might be abused.

“We’ve lost that ability to really have contact with people that might be victimized right now,” Ayers said.

The Gateway crisis hotline number is 770-536-5860.

“The other thing I worry about is with everybody at home right now, if someone does need our help, I’m afraid they don’t know how to safely reach us or get away from the person who’s abusing them to make that call,” Butler said.

Outside of a telephone call, there are ways to reach Gateway through Facebook Messenger and an email form on the Gateway website.

Research has found a relationship between natural disasters and increased rates of interpersonal violence, especially among households that experience significant financial strain. After Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm that made landfall in South Florida in 1992, spousal-abuse calls to Miami’s helpline increased by 50%, researchers found. In L.A., advocates saw domestic violence rise in the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

The concern isn’t that quarantine will cause normally peaceful partners and parents to suddenly become abusive. Rather, it’s likely that widespread isolation and stress-inducing conditions — such as job loss and feelings of helplessness — will increase the number and severity of such incidents in households that have already seen a cycle of violence, advocates say.

“For people who already had anxiety or even depression or other types of mental health issues, being home and constantly being around others in your home can certainly ramp up the intensity, and I think, too, just the level of uncertainty that everybody is having to live with about how long this sheltering-in-place might last, about employment, about kids being home from school,” Ayers said.

Legal advocates connected to Gateway are still helping people with protective orders in the court, and Gateway has taken on extra health precautions amid coronavirus.

“When new families come to us right now, we’re prioritizing safety so that people are not living in shared spaces with other people right away so we can make sure we don’t have any (COVID-19)-positive folks coming in. We’re trying to help isolate people from each other when they first move into the shelter,” Butler said.

Ayers has been reaching out to her clients in a telehealth format and sought ways to “maximize confidentiality,” which could be talking to patients in their cars, using headphones or putting on white noise machines in their rooms.

Gateway is facing a Dec. 31 deadline to relocate from its existing shelter to a new space. Late last year, the center surpassed its original fundraising goal of $2.5 million and was moving toward its enhanced goal of $3 million.

Gateway to Hope, the center’s fundraising event, was scheduled for March 27. Butler said they have not solidified plans on postponing or canceling the event.

“We’re committed to relocating and rebuilding a new shelter and getting that done as quickly as possible. There’s so many unknowns right now. It’s so hard to speculate,” Butler said when asked about contingency plans ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.