COVID-19 pushes a Central Florida domestic violence epidemic into the shadows

For some, ‘safer at home’ isn't the case

COVID-19 pushes a Central Florida domestic violence epidemic into the shadows
Photo by Molly Belle

The stereotype of domestic abuse is that it's loud. So loud, somebody around overhears. Violence gets broadcast by signs like doors slamming or constant shouting – maybe eventually violence spills out into the lawn, or family and friends detect evidence of abuse, bruises or bandages.

But that stereotype of domestic abuse has never been accurate anywhere, and especially not in Florida, where a sociologist's recent review showed that in extreme domestic violence cases, murder often happens after a long period of nonviolent abuse that the police don't take as seriously. Abusers use tactics like intimidation, humiliation and isolation to gain control, threatening violence and dramatizing a sense of fear of the future.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, it's been especially quiet in Florida. Domestic violence centers believe there's good reason to suspect that this silence could become deadly, if survivors can't be reached during social distancing.


The most recent residents of Harbor House, the only certified domestic violence center in Orlando, are a mother and child.

"I'm so grateful that she chose to come in," says Michelle Sperzel, Harbor House CEO, explaining that the risk of death for the new residents was higher at home than in communal living: "I mean, a highly lethal situation," she says, describing the troubling scene these survivors left. Those running for their lives are the only survivors still seeking shelter during the pandemic, Sperzel says, and shelters like Harbor House are focusing their resources on having space for them.

Other survivors seem to be simply enduring abuse at home. In many parts of the country, domestic violence reports have spiked, but in Florida, reported cases have stayed the same or decreased statewide. In Central Florida, the Orlando Police Department, Orange County Sheriff's Office, Osceola County Police Department, Sanford Police Department and Winter Park Police Department all confirmed either no increase in domestic violence reports or a slight decrease.

Instead, what shelters are seeing is that in many areas of the state, including Orlando, survivors are seeking a higher number of protective injunctions as an extra defense against their batterers at home. Unlike police, Harbor House and many other Florida shelters say the domestic abuse hotline is ringing more often now, but most callers are saying they're too afraid to come in because of the coronavirus risks; they view the shelter as posing the greater death threat. At Harbor House, where more than 50 percent of beds are open, every room that's occupied represents an extreme case of domestic abuse.

"The people who are coming in to our emergency shelter are the ones that are in imminent danger," Sperzel says. "They know that if they don't leave that the violence is going to escalate," possibly to the point of murder.

In 2018, there were 104,914 incidents of domestic violence reported statewide, a marginal decrease from the prior year, but while the number of incidents went slightly down, the number of domestic violence-related homicides went up. Close to one in five murders in Florida in 2018 were the result of domestic violence. The most recent report on fatalities from domestic abuse in Florida found that 94 percent of domestic abusers who murdered were men, and in 62 percent of domestic abuse cases that ended in death, those murders occurred at home.

Right now, for domestic abuse survivors, getting out of the house isn't easy, and neither is getting through the end of a phone call. After Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide "safer-at-home" ordinance to limit the spread of COVID-19, acceptable reasons to leave the house were reduced to essential activities, like outdoor exercise or grocery shopping. For survivors of domestic abuse in the state – primarily kids and women age 25-59 – these brief windows when their batterer steps out for a jog or a supply run are sometimes the only opportunities they have to place a quick phone call or grab what they can to leave.

The 24-hour hotline for Harbor House is 407-886-2856. Although some areas of the state, including parts of the Panhandle and Southeast Florida, have experienced a slight decrease in domestic violence calls, Sperzel says that in Central Florida, like most of the rest of the state, their hotline calls have gone up. "A lot of conversations have been ended midstream, because somebody walked into the room," Sperzel says, but when survivors do stay on the line, the most-asked question isn't how they can come in for shelter now. Survivors are asking how they can prepare to come when the state reopens. Some people want to know if there's a wait list.

Sperzel makes it clear there is no wait list and Harbor House is open, with many available beds. They've also got community partners providing quarantine spaces in hotels for anyone displaying symptoms or feeling sick, but it's hard to know that these options exist when you don't or can't call for help.

Some people end up avoiding the phone and Googling for help, searching for "victim services." That's how they find the Victim Service Center, which also has a helpline. A call to VSC connects domestic violence survivors in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties with these three shelters: Harbor House, Help Now Osceola and Safehouse of Seminole.

"We're pretty easy to find," says Lui Damiani, executive director of VSC, which works as a community resource for victims of not just domestic abuse, but sexual assault, violent crime and traumatic circumstances. Their 24-hour hotline is 407-500-4325, and when survivors call, he says they're connected with a master's-level counselor or social worker who can help de-escalate the crisis and direct them to safe shelter.


"What we are seeing more than before is: The survivors who are coming in have close to nothing right now, just because of the timeframe that they have to escape safely," says Candice Nieves, Harbor House's residential services manager. She says supplies have been a key point of stress during the outbreak. Survivors don't know what to bring or how to gather supplies without attracting attention. That's why Harbor House provides all the essentials, from food to fresh towels.

"We set that all up on the crisis line," Nieves says. Survivors are assured that "all the food is going to be provided, linens, toiletries ... we have kids' diapers, formula." In 2018, nearly half the residents in Florida domestic violence centers were children of survivors, many survivors themselves.

Not many people know about Harbor House, partly because it's intentionally hidden away where no one can find it. Only survivors and staff know how to get there. That seclusion, while necessary and desirable, makes it tough to raise awareness that services are still available during the pandemic. Many assume shelters are closed, but domestic violence centers are federally listed essential services. Certified domestic violence centers like Harbor House are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At Harbor House, residents also have access to childcare services and an on-site kennel with vet care. "We're doing our best to talk to the survivors, saying, 'We're still open, please feel you can come in,'" Sperzel says.

For those seeking shelter for the first time ever during this pandemic, Nieves says it's especially tough to make that decision to come in now. "If you've never been, it's all unknown," she says. Many people have no idea what a domestic violence center looks like.

Harbor House, unlike many domestic violence centers in the state, is not set up dormitory-style, but instead has individual rooms. VSC staff routinely visits all three affiliated shelters in the area and can accurately describe each environment to callers requesting shelter. "They can speak to what it actually is because they've been there," Damiani says, noting that he thinks "Harbor House, particularly, is a beautiful environment." Throughout the shelter, there are cheery touches: a Mickey Mouse hopscotch painted on the sidewalk, colorful cube seats in the common room, a kids' kitchen playset in the playroom – right next to the actual kitchen with its white countertops and stocked pantry.

To protect residents through the pandemic, Harbor House has made some adjustments. New residents are quarantined in dedicated rooms after arriving. Rooms where six to eight normally sleep now hold a maximum of four people or one family per room. Nieves says they also supply everyone with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. Signs with safety guidelines went up and informal rules were put in place to persuade residents to stagger use of communal spaces like the kitchen. To increase transparency, house meetings increased from three times a week to twice daily. All the communal areas – sitting rooms, dining areas, kitchen, playground and childcare program facilities – are being cleaned between uses. Because of this, Lysol and other cleaning supplies are high on the shelter's list of continually needed items.

In Florida, there are 42 certified domestic violence centers, with facilities ranging from 15 beds to 133. Centers servicing 22 counties statewide commented on conditions they're seeing for this story. All report operating with reduced capacity due to social distancing, but they have concerns that the longer outbreak conditions continue, the more strapped for resources they will become. Before the outbreak, shelters were already requesting funding to expand available beds, and 29 centers reported needing repairs.

Due to social distancing, important fundraisers were canceled. Some shelters who generate funds through donations to thrift stores, like the Sunrise Domestic and Sexual Violence Center in Dade City, had to close shop. "The decrease in revenue has been really tough," says Sunrise CEO Kelly Sinn.

In North Central Florida, smartphones are the most requested item, according to Theresa Beachy, executive director of Peaceful Paths Domestic Abuse Network. In the Panhandle, the Salvation Army Domestic Violence Program reports a need for laptops and internet services. Because many courts are closed, survivors are being asked to complete forms to request injunctions for protection online, but some of them have no means to do so. "Many of these individuals do not have access to computers," says Kimberly Garbett, director of the Salvation Army Domestic Violence Program.

Several shelters, including Harbor House, have also seen an increase in requests for legal services, with survivors more ready to request injunctions for protection under the shelter-in-place order, but with the courts closed, that particular out requires an internet connection now.

Each new consideration raises new concerns. "Another issue is people not being able to get to counseling and not able to maybe get their medicine," says Leandra Preston, who runs a kennel sheltering pets for domestic abuse survivors called Animal Safehouse of Brevard. Mental health is a factor in 45 percent of domestic violence cases that end in murder in Florida, and getting medications can be more difficult in these days due to lockdown and possible financial stress.

At Harbor House, Nieves says donations of items like cleaning supplies, paper towels, baby wipes, diapers, baby formula, toilet paper and canned goods always help. Harbor House was also previously struggling to keep masks, gloves and hand sanitizer stocked, but recently, the Florida Department of Children and Families helped state shelters with shipments of 20,000 masks and 21,000 pairs of gloves, as well as hand sanitizer. These supplies will be distributed as needed based on weekly calls DCF holds with shelters.


On May 1, DCF officially stepped into a new support role for Florida domestic violence centers.

Earlier this year, it was discovered that the organization previously filling this role, the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, had diverted $7.5 million in funding away from shelters. The money instead went to grossly overcompensating then-CEO Tiffany Carr for paid time off.

Now the state is suing and moving to dissolve FCADV, following a unanimous decision by the state legislature to remove FCADV from a 2003 statute naming it as the only entity that DCF can contract with to manage state shelters. That means DCF is free to contract with a new service provider, but deciding who that will be will take time. State Sen. Aaron Bean, who sponsored the bill to remove FCADV from the statute, tells Orlando Weekly that he expects there will be more transparency around shelter funding moving forward.

Sperzel calls the timing of FCADV's betrayal a "double crisis" because not only are shelters navigating COVID-19 for the first time, but they're doing it while this leadership transition is taking place and they navigate a new relationship with DCF. The biggest issue was uncertainty: For a while, shelters weren't clear how much funding they could expect to receive or for how long they'd be funded. On April 30, DCF renewed contracts for all 42 shelters through June 2021, keeping all shelters at their current funding levels for stability purposes.

"We feel very heard and validated," Sperzel says, but she's also concerned because FCADV provided more than just funding for shelters. "One thing that the Florida Coalition was wonderful at, was getting the word out and making sure they were in front of legislators," she says. "We don't have that voice right now."

DCF is working with shelters to ensure no essential services that FCADV provided are lost in the shuffle, and they've already identified additional funds needed to help shelters deal with COVID-19 losses in fundraising and increased demands for supplies and staff as outbreak conditions go on. There is also the possibility that shelters will get some of the stolen money back from FCADV once the state's lawsuit is settled. (A request for comment on the status of the lawsuit from Florida attorney general Ashley Moody's office was not answered.)

DCF received another influx of funding for shelters from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a federal relief package that includes $45 million in funds that can be used to support domestic violence centers nationwide. Every week in Florida, DCF meets with shelter leaders to discuss shifting needs, and lately those conversations are focused on how to use those funds once the state reopens. That's when the domestic violence shelters and state officials expect demand for services to rapidly increase, as escape becomes more possible and domestic abuse becomes more visible again.


"The more eyes are on people out in the community, and the less they're isolated in their home, the calls for domestic violence, child abuse, we expect those to go up," says Jennifer Rey, program services director of Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse in Delray Beach.

Worldwide, domestic violence cases are surging. As the pandemic stokes confusion over how to stay safe, the state is already planning its reopening and shelters expect to see more survivors in need of services. "We are already hearing from many survivors the stress is increasing the physical violence in the home," says Linda Parker, director of victim services for the Peace River Center that serves Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties in Central Florida.

Trish Giaccone, CEO of Family Life Center in Flagler County, puts forth the question everyone has as the state reopens: "Where do victims go when they need help and centers are unable to provide a safe space?"

At VSC in the Orlando area, Damiani says more than half their domestic abuse cases involve sexual violence, and during COVID-19, they've seen an increase in the number of sexual violence cases where the perpetrator is known to the victim. Last March, the perpetrators were known in 57 percent of sexual violence cases, and this March, they were known in 81 percent of cases. "In this world, they are now assaulting people they know, where it would appear that previously they weren't," Damiani says, describing how COVID-19 conditions have emboldened sexual abusers to strike closer to home.

Harbor House and VSC are getting more creative with how they're checking in with survivors. Zoom and WebEx became online portals for weekly support meetings for survivors who live with their abusers or are sheltered in a location they fear their abuser may discover. Sperzel says for Harbor House, there's been an increase in survivors reaching out via email and Facebook. Next they're looking into providing a text-based service where survivors can text or chat with advocates on their phones or online. Until then, Sperzel says, "We're reaching out to survivors, we're calling them, we're seeing if they have any services that they need."

Right now, the priority at Harbor House is reserving space for survivors who are in imminent danger. In the most sensitive cases, she says the best way to reach survivors is often through friends and families. Together with VSC and Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala, Harbor House launched a program in late April aimed at survivor support networks called "Don't Check Out, Check In." They are asking friends, family and neighbors to look after survivors by checking in daily. "Not everybody is going to call us, but they're going to reach out to somebody," Sperzel says.

Not every outbreak outreach idea for survivors is so thoughtful, though. State AG Moody recently partnered with Uber to offer free transportation to domestic violence shelters in Florida for those in need (an uncomfortable choice for anyone familiar with how the ride-share company documents thousands of drivers sexually assaulting riders annually, only reporting a third of cases at best last year).

It's hard to know how to stay safe during this pandemic. While many residents stayed at Harbor House this past month, others felt they should leave. So far in Florida domestic violence shelters, there have been two confirmed cases of COVID-19.

"Some people just went home because they still didn't feel like they were protected," Nieves says. "They wanted to be quarantined in their own four walls, and we respect that." When residents leave, Harbor House provides them with necessities that can be hard to find right now like toiletries, baby formula and diapers. They also give everyone leaving an assurance.

"Our hotline is always up and running," Nieves says. "If you need us, this isn't going to keep you from coming back. Just call us and we will bring you back."

If you are feeling unsafe during this time, or if you are concerned that a family member, friend or neighbor may be in danger, please call the Victim Service Center 24-hour hotline (407-500-4325) or the 24-hour hotline for Harbor House (407-886-2856).

This story was funded by a grant from the National Geographic Society.

Ashley Belanger

Associate editor, music nerd, NBA junkie, Florida explorer and obsessive pet owner.
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