Domestic violence rises in Georgia as pandemic wanes

Rahel Tsada, is a mother of three and an Ethiopian refugee who lived at the DeKalb County Women's Resource Center to End Domestic Violence safe house when the Covid lock down happened and has since moved to her own home and recently adopted a puppy on Thursday, Jan 13, 2022. A year-and-a-half later, rates of domestic violence and shelter occupancies remain increased.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Rahel Tsada, is a mother of three and an Ethiopian refugee who lived at the DeKalb County Women's Resource Center to End Domestic Violence safe house when the Covid lock down happened and has since moved to her own home and recently adopted a puppy on Thursday, Jan 13, 2022. A year-and-a-half later, rates of domestic violence and shelter occupancies remain increased. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic violence surged in Georgia and across the nation. Ayonna Johnson, director of legal services at the Women’s Resource Center in Atlanta, said her organization was completely overwhelmed.

“At the height of the pandemic, we got calls above what we had ever seen,” Johnson said. “It definitely stretched us in ways we couldn’t have imagined.”

For Michele Bedingfield, executive director at Harmony House’s Domestic Violence Program in LaGrange, that wasn’t the case. She said her community saw crisis calls and emergency shelter residents drop in the early months of COVID.

Now, she said, that trend has reversed.

“We’ve had more crisis calls in the past year than we’ve ever had,” Bedingfield said. “Our shelter is completely full, one or two emergency beds are usually full, and we’re placing people into alternate housing.”

Though Johnson and Bedingfield saw different responses from their clients during the pandemic, their organizations are now seeing elevated fatalities and reports of domestic violence in the post-pandemic period. Their experience is part of a larger trend in the state; though Georgia’s shelter-in-place order ended in June 2021, calls to certified family violence and sexual assault agencies increased 13% in 2022, according to the Georgia Commission on Family Violence. Experts attribute this increase to the lingering effects of COVID-19 and an affordable housing crisis in Georgia.

These factors are also contributing to an elevated number of domestic violence fatalities in the state, according to experts. In 2022, 193 people died from domestic violence fatalities. That number is down from 221 in 2021, but is an increase from every other year recorded by the commission. The Georgia Commission on Family Violence recorded 150 deaths in 2020.

“None of us knew it was going to last this long,” Johnson said.

Difficult to distance

Though perhaps counterintuitive, Bedingfield said the end of the COVID-19 national emergency led directly to increasing reports of domestic violence. One of the reasons may be that people who were not able to get distance from their abusers could now leave the house and make the calls they couldn’t during the pandemic, Bedingfield said.

Also, survivors were able to access third-party observers, who could refer them to domestic violence shelters and programs like Harmony House and the Women’s Resource Center.

One of Bedingfield’s clients has long volunteered at her children’s school to get out of her abusive home. The pandemic temporarily put a stop to that, making violence at home more extreme.

When she returned to the classroom this year, a school counselor referred her to Harmony House.

“Clients that I have spoken with say that the situation while they were in quarantine has made them realize they’ve had enough,” Bedingfield said. “They’ve gotten to the point where they know they deserve better. They’re ready to reach out and get help.”

According to Linnda Durrè, a licensed psychotherapist and a frequent expert witness in domestic violence court cases, isolation during the pandemic allowed families to develop specific, dysfunctional ways of interacting that are still their norms.

Ending stay-at-home orders did not reverse the detrimental patterns some families developed, she said. Maladaptive routines they established while locked at home have lasted, contributing to increased domestic violence reports and fatalities.

“People didn’t have outlets, everyone was just in a pressure cooker,” Durrè said. “Now, the pattern has been set in the home. Everybody including the children now think it’s okay to settle problems with violence.”

Housing crisis contributes

Georgia’s current housing crisis may also contribute to 2022′s elevated numbers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported that home prices are rising steadily — in large part due to the increased cost of building materials and labor shortages.

Price elevations have in turn increased the number of renters, making it more difficult for domestic violence survivors to find adequate and affordable housing. For some local organizations like Harmony House, the crisis also means they can no longer contract with local landlords to provide affordable, stable housing to clients.

“Housing is so important,” Bedingfield said. “We don’t have affordable housing in our community. Many of the rental homes that we could partner with were sold during COVID, and we have very limited amounts of funding.”

When people aren’t able to access affordable housing, Johnson said, shelters across Georgia fill up. Full shelters were a key contributor to increased domestic violence fatalities during the pandemic. COVID-19 protocols forced shelters to reduce their capacities, making them harder for domestic violence victims to access.

Georgia’s housing crisis has only perpetuated this capacity issue, re-clogging the shelters. In January 2022, staff at Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which helps distribute funds to the state’s domestic violence shelters, surveyed shelters in metro Atlanta. The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council said they found only 16 open beds in the city.

“If a woman needs to flee from abuse and then is penalized and unable to rent another residence, that clogs up the emergency shelter options for the next,” Johnson said. “It can be really difficult and daunting when a woman decides to leave an abusive relationship. Creating a space where she doesn’t have to bear that burden alone is something we really take pride in. What do we do when we can’t do that?”

In addition to creating shelter-capacity issues, Georgia’s housing crisis has made it more difficult for survivors to become homeowners and build wealth. The AJC’s reporting has found that Georgia’s home ownership has decreased 7% in the past two decades, negatively impacting middle-income owners, senior citizens and first-time home buyers — which many domestic violence survivors are.

Chloe, who’s last name has been omitted for privacy, arrived at the Women’s Resource Center’s safe house five years ago. In her time there, she learned financial skills that eventually allowed her to purchase her own home.

According to Forbes, building a home is ”one of the most effective and tangible methods of building real wealth.” But women who find themselves in the same situation as Chloe in 2023 may not have that option.

“I need time for me, and when I get home that’s where I can just be myself,” Chloe said. “Just by myself, in my room... this has really come full circle for me and I’m doing more than I ever thought I could.”

Help from several corners

Finding solutions to today’s domestic violence rates lies with policymaking, Johnson said. In order to address these jumps in domestic violence fatalities, the Women’s Resource Center has been working with legislators, judges and law enforcement to help create legal protections for victims of domestic violence.

For example, a state law passed in 2021 allows tenants to terminate their lease before it expires — if they are a victim of family violence or stalking and have a civil or criminal violence protection order or a stalking order.

Johnson said more protections like these, in addition to legislation addressing the housing crisis, are sorely needed.

“Of course we want to end domestic violence, but we have to make sure we have laws in place that are going to be effective for the people that we serve,” Johnson said. “When people can easily access information and feel they are in a safe space, that’s what’s important.”