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Houston-area domestic violence calls are increasing, cases more violent during coronavirus pandemic, officials say

HOUSTON – Some jurisdictions in the Houston area are reporting a spike in the number of domestic violence cases as more people spend extended periods of time at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Law enforcement officials and advocates are concerned that the number of domestic violence incidents will continue to rise because victims are in a uniquely vulnerable position due to stay-at-home orders and isolation.

“We are deeply concerned the calls for social isolation will compound the violence that people experience in their homes,” said Emilee Whitehurst, CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center.

Whitehurst said just this weekend alone, their crisis hotline received 150 calls for help. Whitehurst said that while the number of calls was not out of the ordinary, the nature of many of those calls was concerning.

“Over the weekend... we had 150 calls and half of those were shelter requests,” Whitehurst said. She said the requests for shelter were higher than normal.

The HAWC shelter is currently housing 100 women and children, Whitehurst said. Typically, the shelter has a capacity of 120, but that number has been reduced to ensure social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For those in imminent danger, Whitehurst said HAWC has the Safe Harbor program that helps women find hotels if they are facing immediate danger.

Montgomery County prosecutors say they’ve seen a 35% increase in domestic violence cases filed this month, as opposed to the same time period last year. Prosecutor Echo Hutson said the office is seeing cases where there has been a history of violence, but also an increase in what she calls “pressure cooker” cases where there isn’t a history of violence.

“People that may not have seen violence... where you put it all together in one house — with unemployment, stress, people are scared to go outside, they’re not allowed to go outside as much,” Hutson explained.

Hutson said victims are particularly vulnerable at this time because they are locked in with their attackers.

“They’re isolated more than they would have been. They’re not allowed to go to work, they’re not allowed to get out of that situation, there’s no school,” she said.

Whitehurst said rising unemployment is another factor.

“The primary reason people return to their abuser is for economic reasons — for housing, and to feed their kids and eat,” she said.

The Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office reported a 25% increase in domestic violence cases from last month and a 50% increase from the same time period last year.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo tweeted Tuesday that domestic violence calls were up 6% this month in Houston.

Officials with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office said HPD officers are telling prosecutors recent attacks are more violent but the Harris County Sheriff’s Office reports the number of domestic violence calls are down slightly. Prosecutors believe this might be because victims are trapped with their abusers and are too afraid to call for help.

The Galveston County District Attorney’s Office reports no increase in cases.

Whitehurst said that since many people aren’t leaving homes, there aren’t as many “eyes” on victims. She said this can lead to a decrease in the number of calls from people calling on behalf of victims. In fact, Patrick Crimmins, with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, told KPRC 2 that the number of calls to the statewide hotline are down.

Like Whitehurst, Crimmins believes this is due to children not being in school and people not frequently leaving their homes.

Both Hutson and Whitehurst want victims to know, this pandemic will not prevent help from reaching their doorstep.

“I think it is a difficult time for everybody, but no matter what, it is not worth staying in a situation where your life is in danger and your children,” Whitehurst said.

She said if you are trapped in a home with an abuser there are some steps to take.

  • Keep your phone charged so you can call for help when you get a chance
  • Make sure you have all vital documents together so you can leave quickly
  • Keep track of where your abuser keeps weapons
  • If things escalate, get to a room with an easy exit and give your kids a codeword or safe word that when you use that word they know to dial 911

If you or someone you know is in danger, the crisis hotline number for the Houston Area Women’s Center is 713-528-2121.