What happens behind closed doors? Social isolation during COVID-19 endangers domestic abuse survivors.

By: - March 24, 2020 3:42 pm

SafeHouse in Ann Arbor | SafeHouse photo

People in Michigan and across the country are following health officials’ warnings and staying home to reduce the spread of COVID-19. However, behind closed doors, domestic and sexual violence survivors might be in greater danger, shut in with their abusers.

If you or someone you know needs help, here are some resources:

Safe House Center 24/7 HelpLine: 734-995-5444.

Haven 24/7 Crisis and Support Line: 248-334-1274.

If there is immediate danger, call 911.

Haven in Pontiac is the only 24-hour emergency shelter in Oakland County exclusively for domestic and sexual violence survivors and their children. President Aimee Nimeh said although Haven hasn’t seen a spike in reports of violence yet, the impact of COVID-19 on survivors might not be clear until people start leaving their homes.

“We know it’s happening,” Nimeh said. “With so many people either quarantined or being advised or forced to stay at home, we know that now might not be the safest time for survivors to act on any plan to leave or get to any to get to a safe place.”

It’s people you may know. 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in four women and one in nine men experience severe physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

Survivors have the same anxieties we all have about COVID-19, with the added concern of being isolated with their abusers, Nimeh said. Orders to stay at home, like the one Gov. Gretchen Whitmer instituted Tuesday in Michigan, are necessary for reducing the spread of the virus. However, this social isolation can allow abusers to gain greater control over survivors.


“Social isolation — isolating them from their families, keeping them from working or sabotaging their work — that’s all kind of part of that cycle of abuse,” Nimeh said. “This makes it a lot easier to do some of those things, and people are already afraid and anxious. They [abusers] can further leverage that to exert the kind of control that’s keeping their partner from being able to leave.”

Oakland County, the second-most populous county in Michigan, has some of the highest numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state at 428 cases. Oakland County also has some of the highest rates in reports of domestic violence at 6,739 reports in 2016.

Haven hasn’t seen any change to the number of individuals reaching out for services, Nimeh said, but it also hasn’t seen a decrease, despite more people staying home — which she said is telling. The shelter expects to see a spike in people reaching out for services once people start returning to normal group interaction.

SafeHouse in Ann Arbor | SafeHouse photo

Barbara Neiss-May, executive director of the SafeHouse Center in Ann Arbor, said she’s seen a rise in domestic violence cases in times of disaster during her 18 years working for the organization. Those numbers don’t always result in more people looking for shelter.

During the Iraq war, fewer people sought help in Washtenaw County, Neiss-May said.

“I think it was the concept of solidarity and, ‘I don’t want to rock the boat and I’m not really sure what to do,’” Neiss-May said. “When big national events happen, it’s possible that survivors work even harder than they are to survive. That’s what they do; they survive.”

SafeHouse in Ann Arbor | SafeHouse photo

Seeing reports of spikes in domestic violence cases in China prompted SafeHouse staff to discuss how they will respond to an expected spike in cases, Neiss-May said. 

“I think it happens at about the same rate in every society. It is how society chooses to respond is whether or not you see the numbers of cases,” Neiss-May said. “I think that when there’s a choice to respond and there’s proactive efforts for survivors to have safe avenues to report and get help and support — and where there is a history of justice — you’re going to see more cases.”

Washtenaw County, where SafeHouse is located, saw some of the higher rates of domestic violence in the state at 2,454 cases in 2016. Neiss-May said SafeHouse serves about 6,000 individuals a year seeking counseling, legal services and other services.

Haven and SafeHouse, along with other support organizations around the state, have had to cancel presentations, in-school programs, community events and fundraisers due to COVID-19. Services have moved online and both organizations ask individuals to use their HelpLines.

“We continue to be here; we are in the building,” Nimeh said. “Our emergency services, we need and want to stay open, but we don’t always have the same resources as something like a major hospital system in a lot of ways and so we are trying.”

SafeHouse in Ann Arbor | SafeHouse photo

Neiss-May echoed Nimeh’s sentiment of, “Whatever changes come, we will find a way.” She said shelters around the state are absolutely necessary, especially with the added danger for survivors during this time.

“I think [people think of] health care workers, fire, police grocery store workers,” Neiss-May said. “I mean, it just seems obvious, but I think when people think about domestic violence and sexual assault programs, I think some people think of those as optional. And absolutely, we aren’t.”

Haven is concerned with the financial impact of COVID-19, Nimeh said. Having to cancel fundraisers and even just trying to find toilet paper — a near-impossible endeavor, staff has found — has Haven asking the community for gift cards and self-care items.

Although Haven was prepared to provide services and counseling online, Nimeh said, it is waiting to hear from survivors about the challenges they’re experiencing and prepare for the spike in people seeking refuge at the shelter once people start leaving their homes.


For one reason or another, it can always be hard for a person to leave an environment, so Haven staff already is trained to go through a safety plan with survivors over the phone, Nimeh said. That includes finding out who safe people to call in a crisis are, locating important documents like birth certificates that an abuser might destroy and building a survivor’s support network.

“We continue to be committed,” Nimeh said.”We’re also sort of just taking it day by day and needing to be really nimble, to respond to the changes as they occur.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Anna Liz Nichols
Anna Liz Nichols

Anna Liz Nichols covers government and statewide issues, including criminal justice, environmental issues, education and domestic and sexual violence. Anna is a former state government reporter for The Associated Press and most recently was a reporter for the Detroit News. Anna is a graduate of Michigan State University.