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Op-ed: Surviving Shelter in Place

As Washington began to shelter in place, a friend posted on Facebook that one positive trade-off of COVID-19 will be a dip in mass shootings. My immediate thought was: What about the increase of women and children being shot in homes with an abusive partner and guns?

The mere presence of a firearm in a home increases the risk of homicide for women by 400%. The current financial uncertainty, the stress of children being out of school, and the isolation of stay at home orders are compounding the pressure, making abusive households a powder keg. Survivors are living in a veritable mine field, conscious that any misstep could set off an explosion.

At the same time, general fear and uncertainty around COVID-19 caused gun sales to skyrocket. The FBI reported a 41% increase in background checks in March 2020 compared to the same time last year, with an estimated 2M guns sold.

In Seattle and across the country, 911 calls for domestic violence-related cases have increased. In many cases the increase in 911 calls have coincided with a decrease in calls to domestic violence helplines, suggesting an escalation of violence.

Governor Inslee issued a proclamation in March to allow survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to file for protection orders electronically and to allow courts to hold hearings remotely and serve orders electronically. These commonsense changes made it possible for survivors to continue accessing these life-saving services without putting their health or anyone else’s at risk. That order expired on May 11 and Republican leaders in the legislature refused to extend it. Thankfully, Governor Inslee issued another emergency proclamation maintaining these vital protections.

I left my abusive partner ten years ago and can’t imagine what it would be like to be shut in with him with no one able to come over and witness the holes in the wall, the doors off their hinges, the visible signs of one of his rages.

I was married for eight years to my abuser and I barely mentioned it to anyone. I was ashamed. I wanted to believe his promises to change. I was gaslighted to the point that I was convinced the abuse was my fault. And while I had access to my paycheck and a cell phone, my partner was on all our accounts. I couldn’t spend a cent or make a call without him finding out.

It takes on average seven attempts for someone to leave an abusive partner. And asking for help is so much more complicated now, when survivors might have lost their job, when the only way to reach out might be to take the incredibly bold step of calling the police, when the abuser might have a gun.

I never called the police. Why would I when I thought the abuse was my fault? And when I knew it would lead to a dangerous confrontation? How can we expect women of color to call the police when they may be just as afraid of a white officer coming to their home as they are of their partner?

As a survivor who is reliving my past trauma every day through this pandemic, I need l to say this: The authorities, despite their best efforts, cannot do this on their own. Survivors cannot do this on their own. This is something we need to do together.

Check in with your friends and your neighbors and not just those you expect might be at risk. Ask them how they’re doing. Ask them if there are guns in the house and talk to them about safe firearm storage, which is required by law in Seattle. Listen. And encourage them to seek help. If you hear or witness a violent domestic dispute, report it.

If you think you may be being abused, first, know that it is not your fault. Try to find a safe way to connect with a domestic violence agency or a friend. I know that you might not be able to check your phone or a computer, or even get to a window to scream. If you can though, seek help. There are more safety nets out there than you imagine, ready to catch you if you make the leap.

I hope things will be different after COVID-19. This pandemic has put a stick in the spokes of normality and, in addition to its heartbreak, it is also an opportunity for us to re-assess what’s acceptable in our society. That’s a trade-off survivors might be willing to make.

Rebecca Houghton is a Seattle based writer who now serves on the board of LifeWire (the domestic violence nonprofit that helped her leave her abuser) and volunteers with the Alliance for Gun Responsibility. She frequently speaks and testifies, sharing her story as a domestic violence survivor, to support other survivors and to progress gender equity. Instagram, Twitter @BxHoughton. She/her.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline

Call: 1-800-799-7233 Text: LOVEIS to 22522


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