JANESVILLE

Domestic violence will increase during stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus, experts warn.

“People in abusive relationships are not safer at home,” said Jessica Luepnitz of the YWCA Rock County. “Social distancing can be devastating in times like this.”

Luepnitz is the director of the Alternatives to Violence program, which helps domestic violence victims who are in crisis.

She and other advocates fear the situation will get worse the longer COVID-19 isolates people in their homes.

“My worse fear is that an abusive individual can harm another to the point of death,” Luepnitz said.

She emphasized that the YWCA crisis line is still staffed, the local emergency shelter is still open, and help is still available.

“We are here by calling or texting,” Luepnitz said.

As of midweek, the crisis line had seen only a slight increase in calls.

“That could be because abused individuals may not be able to reach out through our call or text line, given that the abuser is in the same home with them,” Luepnitz said.

She expects calls to spike once the “Safer at Home” order is lifted.

“That’s when we are bracing ourselves,” she said. “Once the order is lifted, people will get a free moment to make a phone call or to make a report to law enforcement.”

Gov. Tony Evers and the state Department of Health Services issued the order effective March 25 through April 24. It says all Wisconsin residents must stay at home as much as possible.

Most domestic violence occurs in the home, “where families are isolated even more than before COVID-19,” Luepnitz said.

She worried that, with children home from school and from any other extracurricular activities, they might become witnesses to abuse or become victims themselves.

“These children may not have an outlet or support,” Luepnitz said, “so they won’t be able to report abuse to a teacher, coach or guidance counselor.”

She also is concerned about the increased emotional toll on people experiencing abuse.

When a person is constantly in fear, the person experiences more uncertainty and hopelessness about what to do, Luepnitz added.

Angela Moore, YWCA executive director, said a lack of food or money can stress even the healthiest relationships.

She pointed to increases in domestic violence around the world where the pandemic has kept victims trapped with their abusers.

If someone is worried about a person who might be in danger, the best thing to do is to listen and to offer information on where the person can go for help, Luepnitz said.

People may call the YWCA helpline to get information about resources.

The YWCA shelter has 33 beds in nine bedrooms and currently houses eight adults and 17 children.

In addition to shelter, the Alternatives to Violence program offers emergency food, clothing, legal advocacy, case management and safety planning.

Gazette reporter Jonah Beleckis contributed to this story.

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