Sheltering In Place: How COVID-19 Paused Progress For Domestic Abuse Survivors
Years after she left her abusive husband, Jasmine was completely out of options. She had tried to create a new life with her kids, but she’d left the relationship with no job and only $78 dollars in her pocket.
After she left, he stalked and harassed her, she says, and refused to pay child support for their six children under the age of 14, undermining every attempt to move on with her life.
Warning: This story features accounts of domestic violence. If you’re experiencing abuse or partner violence and need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or you can chat with an advocate on their website. SafeHaven of Tarrant County's crisis hotline is 1-877-701-7233, and resources are available on their website.
By the beginning of this year, she was living in her car and couch surfing. She’d been forced to take the children back to live with their father because she couldn’t provide for them.
Then, in late February, her oldest daughter called her, frantic.
“She said, ‘You need to come right now.’ [My ex-husband] beat up my son really bad, and he was smashing his head against the wall, and there was a hole in the wall,” Jasmine said.
Jasmine called 9-1-1 and sped over to collect her children.
“And then I said, okay, now what?” she recalls. “And then I thought of the shelter.”
KERA is identifying her only as “Jasmine” to protect her identity.
The shelter is run by SafeHaven of Tarrant County. Jasmine didn’t know what to expect from life at the shelter, but she found safety, community, and a schedule to keep her busy.
After she arrived at the shelter at the end of February, Jasmine fell into a new routine of counseling and support groups, arts and crafts classes and began, again, to chart a new life for her family.
In addition to shelter services, SafeHaven provides caseworkers, childcare and a range of housing, vocational, legal and counseling programs to help abuse survivors get back on their feet.
Jasmine could take the children to daycare during the day so she could concentrate on finding a new place for them to live, or a new job. Residents ate meals together, and were allowed to come and go as they pleased.
Then, in March, the coronavirus upended life in North Texas.
“All of that was cancelled,” Jasmine said.
New restrictions at the shelter left Jasmine to spend nearly every of every hour in her room with all six of her kids. So, while they were all safe and had a roof over their heads, the sudden change in their routines were frustrating, she said, and her youngest children wondered if they were being punished.
“Being stuck in a room all day is not healthy for nobody,” Jasmine said.
She began to relish the brief moments of solitude that came late at night, when she’d put the kids to bed and leave her room to mop floors.
“It’s really sad that [chores] are, you know, your free time,” Jasmine said with a light laugh.
SafeHaven hasn’t had a case of COVID-19 in its shelters, which had 164 beds for families fleeing violent homes before the virus hit. It shut down group activity to try to keep shelter residents safe.
“Right before the stay at home order, we were already at like 98% capacity,” Kathryn Jacob, SafeHaven’s president and CEO, said.
'Keep People Safe'
As the coronavirus forced North Texans inside and out of the public, SafeHaven was flooded with calls to its crisis hotline, many describing dangerous and potentially deadly behaviors as they were trapped at home with their abusers. Meanwhile, the agency was scrambling to figure out how to fortify its shelters against an infectious and deadly disease humanity had never seen before.
Jacob made the tough decision to stop taking new people into the shelter for 36 hours, even as demand for shelter services were surging.
“We've never done that before in our agency's history, but we had to, in order to keep people safe,” she said.
Trailers were brought in for extra housing, single women were given separate rooms, and counseling and other programs shifted online. SafeHaven bought gloves and masks and installed Plexi-glass barriers throughout the shelter.
While restricting residents’ movement was crucial, Jacob said it still felt wrong to take away autonomy of movement from people who’d fled to the shelters to escape abusers who restricted their movements.
“Survivors should feel like they have freedom, because they didn't have that before. And so normally when you come to shelter, you should be able to go into the kitchen at 3 o'clock in the morning and get an apple if you want, and not worry about like repercussions of that,” she said. “But now this thing comes along and …now we have 1 billion rules.”
For Jasmine, coronavirus also meant progress toward moving her life forward hit a wall.
After years of legal wrangling, Jasmine was waiting for a March court hearing. She was hoping the judge would force her ex-husband to pay back money he owed her, but that was cancelled when courts closed because of the pandemic. Criminal cases against him, she said, have also been stymied.
Jasmine was preparing to start job training when the virus hit, but that was cancelled, too. When she spoke to KERA in early May, she was having trouble finding housing and worried , once she’d found it, if she’d be able to furnish it. She lost furniture after her family was evicted last fall.
“Sometimes you just feel that your brain is spinning in circles and, and sometimes it's hard to stay on track because it's just so much,” she said.
'Power And Control'
Domestic abuse is shockingly common in Texas. One in three Texans had experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetimes, and Texans experience abuse at greater rates than national averages, according to a 2011 University of Texas-Austin prevalence study. Researchers found 38% of women and 27% of men they surveyed had survived some sort of psychological abuse, coercive control and entrapment, physical violence, stalking and sexual violence.
Abusers often continue the abuse after their partner leaves. At the time of the survey, a quarter of Texans who reported experiencing abuse named an ex-spouse as the perpetrator of the abuse. Ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends were also described as perpetrators.
“Domestic violence is about power. It's about power and control,” Jacob said. “It's one person who has power over another person. It's one person whose world is getting bigger and someone else's world is getting smaller.”
Jasmine knows this first hand.
After a dozen years of marriage, Jasmine took her children and left in 2017. Her husband’s abuse was escalating, she says, fueled by drug addiction. She’d spent years laying the groundwork for her escape, getting documents in order, completing a GED and becoming certified to practice a traditional massage therapy so she could support her family.
But after she left, he worked constantly to undermine her freedom. First, she said, he sold the family business, drained their bank accounts and fled the country. He reported her car stolen.
After he came back to the US, he stalked her, harassed friends who took care of her youngest kids and refused to pay child support. She and the kids moved seven times in less than three years, she said, and each time he’d track her down, violating court orders to stay away. He even cloned her phone, and used it to call her family and her clients to bad-mouth her.
“Basically, in his head, he said, ‘If I make life impossible for her, by every means, she's going to come back to me,’” she said. “This is how he still thinks up till now.”
In May, he tracked her down at the shelter. She said police had to escort him off the property and she and her kids were moved to a different shelter.
She’s still waiting on the courts to move forward. Both civil and criminal cases are still being delayed by coronavirus. Her job training hasn’t been re-scheduled either.
Jasmine she did get some good news recently: After three months in the shelter, Jasmine and her kids were approved for a house, safely away from her abuser. They received some donated furniture, and moved in a couple weeks ago.
She says it’s good to have room to spread out again.
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