Terrified and alone earlier this week, a woman had called the National Domestic Violence hotline, where Amber Mitchell, a 27-year-old phone service advocate, did her best to talk her through the situation.
The woman had already escaped her violent partner who would strangle and emotionally abuse her. She had finally managed to find a new place after receiving a Section 8 housing voucher. But the man had found her again. He had begun showing up at her new home in their small community, stalking her and threatening to shoot her.
So the woman was stuck, refusing to leave her home.
She reached out to the housing authorities and requested to transfer her voucher somewhere else, where he wouldn’t be able to find her. But because of the government shutdown, she was told, her transfer request wouldn’t be processed.
The longest-ever government shutdown has come to an end — for now. On Friday, President Trump announced a deal with congressional leaders to temporarily reopen the government while talks continue on his demand for border wall money — but while it lasted, calls like this one poured into domestic violence hotlines across the country.
Callers described abusive situations becoming increasingly worse amid the financial strain of missed paychecks due to the government shutdown. Uncertainty over benefits like food stamps and housing vouchers have led some domestic violence victims to stay — or return to — dangerous situations out of desperation for financial security.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline has seen a spike in calls and messages this month, adding to already higher volumes of callers amid the #MeToo movement and high-profile news stories about cases of sexual assault and domestic violence.
The national hotline received an average of 1,679 contacts daily between Jan. 1 and Jan. 17, up more than 50 percent from an average of about 1,105 daily contacts in the same period last year and up about seven percent from the daily average of 1,571 contacts over all of last year.
Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said it’s impossible to know how much of the increase in calls is associated with the government shutdown. But she and other advocates at the hotline said they have seen an emerging trend in stories related to the shutdown’s ripple effects.
Experts say one of the main reasons domestic violence victims stay in abusive situations is for financial security. Abusers can use finances to control and manipulate their partner and limit their ability to leave the home.
A wave of similar stories emerged during the financial recession, Ray-Jones said. Amid the financial crisis of 2008, the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that calls to the hotline were up significantly. Among victims who called the hotline during a period of six weeks, more than half reported a change in their household’s financial situation in the past year.
A 2016 study in the journal Demography found that unemployment and economic hardship in the home were positively linked to abusive behavior, and sharp spikes in the unemployment rate increased men’s controlling behavior toward their partners.
Kristin Vamenta, a 30-year-old senior hotline crisis coordinator with Virginia’s statewide domestic violence hotline, answered a phone call recently from a woman who had already left an abusive situation but was at the point of returning out of fear that she might lose her SNAP benefits. The woman had been unable to qualify for an emergency shelter, and was staying with a friend temporarily.
“Maybe I would have been better off had I not left, because I would at least know what to expect,” the woman said, Vamenta recounted. “I would have some stability, even though I know it’s not what I deserve and it’s not healthy, and could escalate at any moment to be dangerous.”
Another woman who reached out to the national hotline said she felt her only option was to allow her abusive partner to continue to live in her apartment because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to feed her children in the absence of food stamps, said Peggy Whilde, a digital services manager at the national hotline.
The woman was on disability and could not work, Whilde said, and her partner financially abused her by controlling when she could leave the house and where she could go.
“These are the most vulnerable people who have the least power,” Whilde said.
In another case, a male victim said he was furloughed due to the government shutdown. His inability to earn money was causing his wife to become increasingly emotionally abusive and controlling. Another woman called the hotline saying her partner was working without pay, and the stress of the shutdown was worsening to his substance abuse, causing him to be increasingly physically violent toward her.
Whilde said she wished politicians in Washington would realize that “this is not trivial.”