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Phillip Tutor: A pandemic’s ‘worst-case scenario’ for abuse victims

Shipman

Susan Shipman, the executive director of 2nd Chance, Inc.

The victims. They’re always on Susan Shipman’s mind. The victims of sexual assault, of domestic violence. Those who often are voiceless, whose options are few. 

And now this, a global pandemic that’s killed more than 50,000 people worldwide and shredded the economy and dissolved millions of jobs and isolated Americans. 

That’s on Shipman’s mind, too.

“It’s like a worst-case scenario for the victim,” said Shipman, executive director of Anniston-based 2nd Chance, which provides advocacy and support in domestic violence and sexual assault cases. “It’s the worst thing that can happen.”

This is COVID-19 reality. The disease’s byproducts are just as wicked.

Victims of sexual assault and domestic violence often use work as a temporary escape from their batterers; for them, homebound quarantine can be toxic. So it’s no surprise that reports of sexual assault and domestic violence are rising in cities where the disease is already out of control.

Police in Seattle reported this week there’d been a 21 percent increase there in the number of reported domestic-violence incidents. Calls to New York City’s domestic-violence hotline surged to more than 1,200 during the last two weeks of March.

Greenland has banned alcohol sales because of a surge in domestic-violence cases, the Washington Post writes. Calls to Tunisia’s hotline jumped fivefold. France has installed enhanced security measures to assist victims. Visits to Brazil’s drop-in center for victims have spiked.

2nd Chance hasn’t witnessed that — yet. Beds remain available in its two shelters. There’s been no quantifiable spike in cases.

But if the six counties 2nd Chance serves become an Alabama COVID hotspot, that spike may be another byproduct of a disease we thus far can’t control.  

“We absolutely are concerned about that,” Shipman said, “because we know isolation is one of the best tactics that batterers have to control a victim. If a victim is not out and about having the usual time apart from the batterer that happens during the day … then she or he is home there with the batterer, and there is no outlet.”

No one’s routine is immune from COVID-19.

In normal times, a 2nd Chance advocate would walk sexual-assault victims through their forensic exam at the emergency room. Hands are held. Questions are answered — questions from doctors, from police, from nurses. Clean clothes are provided. It’s irreplaceable assistance. 

And “now, none of our advocates or staff can go into the hospitals,” said Trace Fleming-Trice, director of 2nd Chance’s sexual violence programs. She praises the hospitals they work with; they’re helping as they can. “We’re so grateful for them,” she said.

“But now we have to do it over the phone or by using Zoom or using FaceTime, and that’s not been ideal.” She’d welcome a few tablets that victims can use for video-streaming sessions during their exams.

COVID-19, though, is relentless. Fleming-Trice even wonders if it’s safe to give victims a bag of clothes and toiletries. What if they’re contaminated?

“Our worry,” she said, “is that survivors aren’t necessarily getting the care (from us) they need. It’s not that we’re not here, it’s that we are having to do it differently.”

COVID-19 seeps into all plans. Even celebrations. April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, and 2nd Chance had planned its annual event for this weekend at Choccolocco Park in Oxford. Fleming-Trice calls it their Super Bowl. It’s now postponed. 

None of the victims living this week at 2nd Chance’s shelters are positive for the coronavirus. But what if? What if a domestic-violence victim stricken with COVID-19 needs sheltering?

No one would be turned away.

“We will let them in and we will practice the safest measures that we can,” Shipman said. Shelter residents would be segregated, those with COVID-19 from those without, in different wings of the homes; bathrooms wouldn’t be shared; cleaning of communal areas would be further ramped up.

“And I’ve told our staff, if you aren't comfortable coming to work, tell me that,” she said, “and we’ll have to figure something out. I don't want to expose somebody who is not willing to do that.”

Even so, her staff has only homemade face masks to protect them from the coronavirus.

“We would cherish some N95 masks if anyone can get a hold of them,” Shipman said.

That’s what this has come to. Advocates for domestic-abuse victims needing medical-grade face masks so they can safely continue their work.

“I actually expected to see (a surge) before now,” Shipman said. “But I do think that a whole lot of people around here weren’t taking it seriously. We absolutely expect to start seeing a whole lot more victims making the line ring.”

Shipman is blunt, her words direct. 

“This,” she said, “is real.”

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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