When home isn't safe: Domestic violence concerns during stay-at-home orders

For domestic violence victims, stay-at-home orders and closures of businesses intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 have the unintended consequences of limiting their options to get help.

Photo illustration by Metro Newspaper Service

Sometimes the safest place is not at home.

Stay-at-home orders like the one Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued and extended until May 4 have kept some victims of domestic violence home with their abusers and isolated from people and resources that could help — something the general public may not be aware of.

“I do think that in times of crisis people tend to focus on themselves … part of the reason why somebody might not think of how this would impact a victim or a survivor of domestic violence,” said Shannon Wussow, executive director of Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center in Brainerd.

For domestic violence victims, stay-at-home orders and closures of businesses intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 have the unintended consequences of limiting their options to get help.

“When they are able to leave to go to work, leave to go to appointments, leave to go visit friends … that kind of is a safe haven for them and when a stay-at-home order is in place … that just kind of increases the risks that are happening at home and also the frequency,” Wussow said.


Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center

The center has been empowering victims of domestic violence through a variety of programs since 1978. The nonprofit provides a 24-hour intake to emergency shelter for individuals experiencing domestic violence including women, along with their children and pets, and men.

“If there’s financial stress at home, that can also increase the level of domestic violence that’s already occurring in a home,” Wussow said of factors that can exacerbate the situation.

Shannon Wussow

The U.S. Department of Labor recently reported about 22 million people have applied for unemployment across the nation in the last month. In Minnesota alone, more than 500,000 people have applied for unemployment.

“We need to talk about this. Two-thirds of the police calls over the weekend were domestic violence-related,” Walz said of domestic violence during his March 30 COVID-19 briefing.

Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center provides personal advocacy, information and referral, support groups, and community education in addition to physical safety for domestic violence victims.

“We have been open ever since the stay-at-home order was put into effect,” Wussow said. “Our programs are deemed essential services, and it permits individuals to leave their residences to relocate to ensure safety, and that does include the safety that’s provided by the shelter.”


Wussow said the center is adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health guidelines as far as social distancing measures, cleaning and sanitation, and increased communication with clients and staff about respiratory health.

“Those are strictly enforced — increased presence of all of the sanitation tools around both of our buildings — so we’re taking the appropriate measures, too, not only providing the services, but we want to make sure that people are staying safe and healthy as well,” Wussow said.

The Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center in Brainerd is an arm of the Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center that provides a safe place for child exchanges and supervised parental visits.

“The (governor’s) order also permits the care of others, which includes visitation schedules pertaining to children in need of protective services, and that covers the services that are offered at the Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center,” Wussow said.

At the Alex and Brandon center, custodial and non-custodial parents can exchange their children without having to see one another. It also provides playrooms and a full kitchen for non-custodial parents to visit with their children in a safe, supervised place.

“There have been increased requests for assistance as far as information and referrals to navigate this time, so those are our nonresidential services that have seen an increase, and we’ve been maintaining pretty consistent with the residential service requests,” she said.

Domestic violence

Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center is the only 24-hour emergency shelter in Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties.

“We also offer a 24-hour crisis line, information and referrals to clients, assistance with filing orders for protection and harassment restraining orders, accompaniment and support at court hearings. We facilitate self-help groups at the shelter and in the community,” Wussow said.


According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline website, “When survivors are forced to stay in the home or in close proximity to their abuser more frequently, an abuser can use any tool to exert control over their victim, including a national health concern such as COVID-19.”

Wussow said requests for Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center’s services have been “pretty consistent” even though the statewide stay-at-home order has made times challenging.

“Last year, approximately 5,000 individuals received services between both of our programs … between at our domestic violence shelter and approximately 1,400 families received services at the Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center,” Wussow said.

While in-person contact with a center advocate can be challenging with the stay-at-home order, other ways to reach the center can include the use of social media, phone calls, text messages, letters or really any form of communication one can think of to ask for assistance.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all as far as what a recommendation or an appropriate safety plan would be for a victim. … The advocate would be the expert … and be able to help walk them through what it is that they’re hoping to accomplish, what is the victim’s priorities, what are their biggest concerns,” Wussow said.

Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center’s annual fundraiser is another victim of the coronavirus. The June 5 event was canceled by the nonprofit’s board due to the global pandemic.

“Domestic violence is present whether there’s a pandemic, regardless of what time of year ... and we are consistently offering those services when they’re needed by victims,” Wussow said.

To make a donation to Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center, mail checks made out to the nonprofit to Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center, P.O. Box 602, Brainerd, MN 56401.


How COVID-19 could impact domestic violence survivors

  • Abusive partners may withhold necessary items, such as hand sanitizer or disinfectants.

  • Abusive partners may share misinformation about the pandemic to control or frighten survivors, or to prevent them from seeking appropriate medical attention if they have symptoms.

  • Abusive partners may withhold insurance cards, threaten to cancel insurance, or prevent survivors from seeking medical attention if they need it.

  • Programs that serve survivors may be significantly impacted — shelters may be full or may even stop intakes altogether. Survivors may also fear entering shelter because of being in close quarters with groups of people.

  • Survivors who are older or have chronic heart or lung conditions may be at increased risk in public places where they would typically get support, like shelters, counseling centers, or courthouses.

  • Travel restrictions may impact a survivor’s escape or safety plan — it may not be safe for them to use public transportation or to fly.

  • An abusive partner may feel more justified and escalate their isolation tactics.

Source: National Domestic Violence Hotline.

FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .
I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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