The San Antonio Police Department received 4,917 calls reporting family or domestic violence from March 1 to April 4, nearly 20 percent more than the same time period during the previous year, according to SAPD officials.

“That increase is alarming to us,” said SAPD Lt. Jesse Salame. Calls may not necessarily reveal a criminal offense or lead to a domestic violence case, but “this is the crime that has us most concerned” during the COVID-19 outbreak.

As families limit interactions with the outside world to stem the spread of the highly contagious virus, area “Stay Home, Work Safe” orders put victims of domestic violence even more at risk with fewer opportunities to escape potentially dangerous situations. In 2017, Bexar County had Texas’ highest per-capita rates of women killed by a male domestic partner – and those deaths have more than tripled since 2014.

“Add to that the stress and uncertainty that has been brought on by COVID, it’s really important that friends, family, and neighbors are checking on those who are vulnerable,” Salame said. “Officers and advocacy services will always be available to help when called. … We’re going to show up for calls and we’re going to make arrests.”

The Bexar County district attorney’s office has reduced its staff but is still accepting applications for and issuing protective orders. People seeking protective orders can still call the office (210-335-2311), fill out an online form, or mail in an application. If the order is granted, arrangements are made to sign the document by appointment.

“With family members spending more time in what can seem to be close quarters during the COVID-19 pandemic, we anticipated an increase in family violence calls,” Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales said in a news release regarding staff cuts. “We wanted to continue to help protect people during this time while reducing the risk of exposure to both our staff and the public.”

The “Stay Home, Work Safe” order does not apply to people who need to get out of an abusive home. Shelters and hotlines for victims of domestic abuse are open.

“We are first responders, so of course we wouldn’t close,” said Marta Pelaez, CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services (FVPS). “We are open, we are functioning [and] providing all of the services that we always did, except for the school [transportation], of course.”

Pelaez is well aware of the added anxiety and isolation that COVID-19 has brought to the community, especially to victims of abuse. Her staff has been bracing for more calls, but they haven’t seen an increase.

“This is also a very worrisome phenomenon that we’re seeing,” she said. “While the police are experiencing an increase of calls, we are not seeing that many more.” To her, that means victims likely are not following up to get help.

The nonprofit’s shelter, which houses 130 women and children, is still accepting new residents (and donations). The other services it provides, such as counseling for children and adults, have moved to telephone or video chat. Its own crisis hotline (210-733-8810) is fully functional. The City’s general COVID-19 Hotline (210-207-5779) also will connect callers who are experiencing abuse to resources.

As far as shelter capacity is concerned, there really isn’t a maximum, Pelaez said. “I will never turn away a victim who [needs] shelter. … We will always have the space.”

These shelters and resources have been taxed even before the outbreak, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “We will be working towards additional capacity in those cases. … There’s a working group set up to examine the needs and anticipate any capacity concern before they happen.”

The City has identified local hotels that can be used to house homeless individuals in cases where quarantine is necessary but they have nowhere else to go.

FVPS arranges pickups of victims and their children who want to leave their abuser – either from their home while the abuser is away or from any location, she said, but the organization said calls for such services have stopped completely.

“My biggest fear is that while we’re implementing a strategy to remain healthy that makes sense for everybody else … it’s not right for the victims of domestic violence because they find themselves trapped and isolated with the perpetrators,” Pelaez said.

Usually, a victim has some kind of opportunity to confide in a friend, co-worker, or family member outside the home – but those chances have diminished as many people stay home from work, school, and other places. Phone and video chat platforms don’t offer the same safe environment to share such personal details.

Salame, Pelaez, and Nirenberg urged residents to check on friends, colleagues, and family members – especially if you suspect abuse.

“If you have a friend who you suspect maybe in an abusive situation, maybe agree to have a coded phrase so that you can act on that and call the police for that person,” Pelaez said. “We have to be very creative to assist someone who finds herself in a situation of entrapment.”

She is considering requesting “enhanced penalties for abusers … during this period of time.” That likely would require state legislative action.

“So far the disciplinary actions are state- and federal-level issues, but obviously we’ll examine any opportunity we have to deter family violence during a crisis situation,” Nirenberg said. “I think our focus has to be on prevention right now.”

These stressful times can push people over the edge who normally aren’t at risk of becoming abusers, Pelaez said. There are resources for prevention – before the abuse starts – as well.

“For victims of abuse, the home has already been a prison, and we want both families who are suffering as well as people who may be on the verge of being abusive to know that there are resources available to prevent that kind of pain,” Nirenberg said.

The FVPS shelter has implemented rigorous cleaning and sanitation protocols, staggered mealtimes for families, and educated those it serves about the virus and maintaining an appropriate distance from others, Pelaez said. So far, no one there has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Not everyone who comes to the shelter is aware of the importance of social distancing and reporting symptoms, she said. “They’re going through a crisis of their very own, their personal world is collapsing – that’s [why] they come to the shelter. And then on top it off, there is this other crisis layered on top of them.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org