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Pandemic Creates 'Powder Keg' Situation As Domestic Violence Homicides Soar

Last year was the deadliest for domestic violence homicides in Cincinnati in 20 years. A local group who helps women says at least 16 women were killed, but the number could be as high as 20. This is all in spite of the city allocating more money than ever to the issue. The cause? Lockdown and social isolation required because of COVID-19.

Kristin Shrimplin, president and CEO of Women Helping Women said, "It was this triple storm because gender-based violence at its core, it's about power and control. It's about isolation, keeping it behind closed doors, disconnecting that survivor from resources, friends, family, coworkers, neighbors. Well, that's also what the pandemic was doing. So it really became this powder keg situation."

This was in spite of making progress on the domestic violence front in the past few years.

Back in 2017, nine women were killed in domestic violence homicides. At the time, that sparked major change.

Shrimplin says that's why the Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team was started in 2018. Known as DIVERT, the program sends advocates with police to the scene of domestic violence incidents. Advocates offer emergency assistance and help people make safety plans. About 70% of people DIVERT works with have never had access to these services.

"So we made progress," Shrimplin said. "We won't say that domestic violence homicides went down because of our work. But we did see they went down quite a bit in our region. And then they skyrocketed. In 2020, what we were seeing around the homicide of women in our city in Cincinnati hit 20-year record highs." 

Three major factors contributed to the uptick. First, nationally, there was the already-existing domestic violence pandemic. Then, mandated stay-at-home orders and curfews have been in effect intermittently since last March. Third, Shrimplin says institutionalized racism made the problem worse for Black women. Of the 16 confirmed homicides related to the issue, Black women made up 13.

Black women already have the odds stacked against them in many areas of health, says President and CEO at The Center for Closing the Health Gap Renee Mahaffey Harris. That includes heart disease, diabetes and mental and maternal health, where they're more likely to have disproportionate rates of mortality. Domestic violence is another area where she says Black women face unique circumstances. She referred to a report she read about policing.

"It was just looking at this notion of women that are Black, calling the police, with our heightened conversations and concerns and outcomes of Black men dying at the hands of police officers, right, that there is a hesitation to involve police in domestic issues," she said.

To combat all domestic violence, last year, the city allocated $250,000 to Women Helping Women for the DIVERT program, which is usually underfunded. It's the first time city officials have set aside so much money for domestic violence issues. While the funding helps and the organization needs those kinds of investments, Shrimplin says there are still major issues contributing to violence against women that need to be addressed. Among the biggest is poverty.

Part of other services Women Helping Women provides is money for down payments on apartments, changing locks or storage. And the need for those services has increased, too.

In August and December of 2019, the organization financially helped 52 clients. The same months this year, it helped 112 people.

"So, you know, 90-plus percent of the survivors we serve live below 200% Federal Poverty Level; 75% of those 90-plus folks, their annual income is $10,000, or nothing," she said.

For these women, survival is about having money.

Mahaffey Harris says financial dependence in relationships, especially during COVID-19, creates situations where women have few choices but to stay in abusive relationships.

"When you start compounding already disproportionate factors with loss of job, increased stress and anxiety that we're all experiencing, uncertainty in your economic stability … If you are a single family head of household or in a partner situation, the economic entanglement becomes an even bigger factor," she said.

While the reality of violence against women is overwhelming, Shrimplin and others refuse to be hopeless. And there are two major things people can do to help those they suspect might be experiencing domestic violence.

"What that person who hears that can immediately say, and it's so powerful, 'I believe you. This isn't your fault. There's help,' " she says.

The second thing is to put this number in your cell phone: 513-381-5610. That's Women Helping Women's 24-hour hotline number that can also be texted.

"When people, like if our loved ones tell us they're going through gender-based violence -- or neighbor or friend or coworker -- we can get overwhelmed as that person hearing that. We don't have to be the experts," she says.

For more information about Women Helping Women, visit their website.

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