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Pa. Advocates Warn Isolation During Quarantine Could Lead To Increase In Domestic Violence And Abuse

A string of shirts decorated by survivors of domestic violence hang above the "Empty Place at the Table" exhibit.
Taylor Mason-Little
In this file photo, a string of shirts decorated by survivors of domestic violence hang above the "Empty Place at the Table" exhibit.

Several advocacy groups in Pennsylvania are warning that isolation during COVID-19 will potentially increase instances of sexual abuse and domestic violence. 


WPSU’s Min Xian talked with Jim Willshier of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape about challenges in making sure those who need help can get it. 


If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-888-772-7227 to reach your local rape crisis center. Contact a domestic violence program by calling 1?800?799?7233. For suspected child abuse, contact 1-800-932-0313 for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS)’s ChildLine to report suspected abuse or file a report online at




Min Xian: Jim Willshier, thank you for joining us.


Jim Willshier: Thank you for having me.


Min Xian: Last week, your organization, along with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Center for Children's Justice issued a warning that COVID-19 will inflict trauma and casualties beyond the illness itself. Why is a crisis like this potentially worse for domestic violence or sexual abuse?


Jim Willshier: So what our concern is that normally when it comes to someone that's causing abuse to others, they use isolation as one of the tools that they're able to use on their victim; or domestic abuse that can be oftentimes making sure that the person is only going to work and coming right back if they're even able to work or tracking their phones, cutting them off from any of their social connections they might have. When it comes to the coronavirus, all the protections that we're taking to make sure we're all safe from the virus, they do flow very closely to what a lot of those that commit abuse also follow. 


So our concerns are - is that, one, it's allowing someone who commits abuse to continue doing that. Maybe even have an excuse to do so. But, now also with the increased stress of unemployment, anyone that might be using any alcohol or substances as a coping mechanism or just any other underlying issues that it may just become more of a powder keg that could escalate any potential violence.


Min Xian: There are experts who are particularly concerned by reports of increased gun and ammunition sales during the coronavirus crisis as well. How does that factor in this issue?


Jim Willshier: Um, it can't say that firearms in themselves do lend themselves to violence, but obviously there has been an increase in firearm sales that I know just anecdotally and in my area. There are threats that get made and domestic violence in particular, using firearms as a part of the threat. If there's more of that present in the home on top of, like I said, any substance use. It just creates a lot of variables that we obviously wouldn't want to have there for violence.


Min Xian: This kind of increase in abuse and trauma happened before, during the Great Recession. What do we know from that time about the consequences it could bring?


Jim Willshier: I appreciate you bringing that up because the last time we had a recession, obviously unemployment numbers were up. There's a lot of mortgage foreclosures that are happening. In that time, child abuse was one thing that researchers at UPMC were able to track. And unfortunately we saw a large increase - over 200% when it came to children that were under age five and below. And the number for one and under also had increased. 


What our concern is - that is a separate issue from the pandemic in itself because, with a pandemic, again, with the isolation, there are mandated reporters no longer having any connection to any of the children. So that means that teachers that aren't able to see their children, even if there is an opportunity that the school district may have Zoom classes, you're still not able to see the full body, hear the tone of their voice, and have interactions with them to be able to see if there's any signs of abuse.


There's a lot of physicals that may not be taking place. Definitely any kind of youth clubs or athletics is off the table and those are all mandated reporters that normally would have seen any kind of trauma or suspected child abuse and called Department of Human Services Childline. In fact, about a third of most of the calls that come into Childline are usually from teachers. So what our concern is is that when we saw actual abuse happening in a great recession, on top of everything with the stress and isolation and no longer having contact with any mandated reporters that will be looking out for the welfare of the child, we may see an increase of abuse. But we also might not be able to track all of that in Childline, to have anybody reporting suspect child abuse to help the child.


Min Xian: And I was going to ask that a lot of the businesses are close right now. Schools are, too, as well as courts. A lot of people are not able to see face-to-face with their social worker or counselors. So that is cutting off a lot of really important channels where people in abusive situations usually may be able to seek help. Can you talk a little bit more about how significant is that challenge?


Jim Willshier: Yeah. I guess the saving grace with all that is, all of us that are in this industry of offering counseling services - that's all the domestic violence programs, all of the rape crisis centers that we represent with the Coalition Against Rape, all the child advocates - we are all trying to find unique ways to continue doing business just like everybody else. That has meant trying to find out whether we can do phone counseling sessions in some cases where it's available doing tele-counseling, if the client is comfortable with it and also if the technology is available.


I would say one of the more challenging things is that a lot of people do like having that physical building to be able to go in, that may offer a sense of safety but also a chance to be able to see someone one-on-one and have more of that connection with someone. There still is the challenge of the individual being able to find a safe place where they might be able to make that call or be able to have that session, when they're at home, possibly with the person that is committing the abuse. For that, it's mainly a matter of trying to see what their comfort is and just letting them know you can call back or set something up another time. There is no right or easy way to do that. It's mainly just trying to feel things out. But all of us are still open. We'd still all have 24-hour hotlines both for domestic violence as well as any sexual assaults or rape and the DHS 24-hour hotline for any child abuse.


Min Xian: And what are the important things to try to remember during this crisis? I think one thing that you mentioned are, you know, the resources are available out there.


Jim Willshier: Yeah. I think that is the number one that everyone knows that there are resources available. You can call it the hotlines that are out there. They are free, they are confidential, which is another big thing that I can't emphasize enough, that if you call any of these numbers, anytime you will get someone - it is a live person. They will help you as best they can on the call as well as refer you to someone close by. So if you're in center County, they will refer you to a program that is in center County. And that makes a big difference, too, that you can have that local connection and then have those resources close to home too.


Min Xian: Jim Willshier, thank you so much for talking with me and I hope you stay safe. 


Jim Willshier: Thank you. You stay safe too. 


Min Xian: Jim Willshier is the Chief Public Affairs Officer of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. I’m Min Xian, WPSU.

Min Xian reported at WPSU from 2016-2022.
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