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Increase in domestic violence calls noted in recent weeks

Stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines due to COVID-19 have brought their own set of problems for many across the country, such as financial instability and anxiety, among many others. For those living in a domestic violence situation, though, widespread isolation brings with it a new level of danger.

In Freeborn County, a clear increase in calls related to domestic violence has been noted by both Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag and the advocates of the Freeborn County Crime Victims Crisis Center.

“In some cases, even without the effects of COVID-19, relationships can be already strained, and with the restriction of many types of work and activities through the executive orders, people are forced to spend more time together,” Freitag said. “On top of that, they may have more problems to deal with like financial issues, which is a common relationship strain that law enforcement sees on some of the calls that we respond to. Sometimes, excessive alcohol consumption during the pandemic and while the stay-at-home order is in effect, doesn’t help matters either.”

The advocates with the CVCC said they have seen the increase in calls and that local law enforcement has worked well with the organization to increase communication as calls have gone up. The entities have partnered well to make sure victims are getting the services they need, according to Maureen Williams-Zelenak, supervisor of the CVCC as well as Freeborn County’s children’s mental health unit.

“Calls have increased for sure, and that’s why it’s even more important for people to know we are available,” Williams-Zelenak said.

Since Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order went into effect in March, the CVCC has dealt with more people being unsure of if and how they can find resources.

“The order does encompass and creates more difficulty for people who are living in situations where there is domestic violence power and control issues in their home, but Governor Walz was very clear in his order that there’s a caveat that, if you are unsafe in your home, he urges people to leave and get resources and support,” Williams-Zelenak said.

“Whether COVID-19 restrictions exist or not, people don’t have to live in a domestic violence relationship,” Freitag said.

Paragraph 5a of Executive Order 20-33 states that “Individuals whose homes or residences are unsafe or become unsafe, including individuals who have suffered or are at risk of domestic violence or for whom the safety, sanitation or essential operations of the home or residence cannot be maintained, are allowed and urged to leave their home or residence and relocate to a safe alternative home or residence.”

In addition to confusion about what services are still available, CVCC advocates said victims of domestic violence are dealing with having less space between themselves and their abusers.

“I think victims are also afraid,” said CVCC advocate Kim Tiegs. “They probably don’t have the same space to even think about leaving, either.”

“Whatever freedom they had is restricted now by having to stay in that household,” added CVCC advocate Andrea Mauer.

On top of the added isolation to the already long list of obstacles domestic violence victims face when trying to leave, the coronavirus pandemic adds its own risk factors, and can cast more doubt in a victim’s mind.

“Where do you go? Because you could potentially expose yourself or your children even more,” Tiegs said. “Sometimes victims worry that they’re making a big deal out of something. It is a big deal, but sometimes people think that there’s just so much more going on that’s more of a problem right now, that they’ll just put it to the side and wait.”

In addition, the cycle of domestic violence can be hard to break.

“They’re worried about where their significant other’s going to go, then, because there’s nowhere for them to go,” said CVCC advocate Heather Butler. “So then they feel stuck. ‘Well, I don’t want to put them out on the street, even though I’m terrified of them being here.’”

What CVCC advocates want to emphasize, though, is that stress doesn’t cause domestic violence.

“When somebody’s abusive, they’re not going to change, but they might become worse with the added stressors. They need to act out on somebody, so they act out on the people that are within their grasp, which would be their loved ones,” Mauer said. “People want to say it’s because of stress, but everyone’s under stress, but not everyone is getting in physical fights with their wives.”

With the increased isolation, victims have less opportunities to reach out for help to their family and friends due to social distancing guidelines.

“Victims are just more vulnerable, because they don’t have maybe their relative or whomever they maybe went to,” Tiegs said. “And I think abusers know that.”

CVCC advocates urged people worried about loved ones in domestic violence situations to keep in contact with them, and if they know there’s an active domestic incident happening or if someone’s life is at risk, to call law enforcement immediately.

“I think some people still have the misconception that domestic violence is a private, family issue and other family members or friends shouldn’t get involved. This is false,” Freitag said. “Get involved and do the right thing by reporting what you know. Your involvement may be what’s needed for the victim to get out of a violent relationship and it just might save that person’s life.”

While coronavirus has changed how the CVCC operates, an advocate is still in the building each weekday, while the two others work from home. Advocates still attend court with victims and still help them with everything they can, whether it’s in person or over the phone. Orders for protection and harassment restraining orders are now available in the Freeborn County Government Center lobby as well as on the www.mncourts.gov website. Advocates said they can still walk people through filling out the forms, and can be reached at 507-377-5460, which is also the CVCC’s 24/7 crisis line. The CVCC, which has a Facebook page, can also be reached by email at CVCCOffice@co.freeborn.mn.us.


About Colleen Harrison

Colleen Harrison is the photo editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. She does photography and writes general-assignment stories.

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