The harsh reality of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic is that it is skyrocketing, according to victim support and law enforcement officials.
As businesses closed, schools districts moved remote and public and social gatherings were cancelled, victims of domestic violence found themselves sequestered with their abusers for days, weeks or months on end and little interaction with friends and family in the outside world.
Incidents of domestic violence have increased in Lycoming County for years. In 2010, 251 domestic violence abuse claims were filed in the county, according to Lycoming County District Attorney Ryan Gardner. In 2019, the annual abuse claims rose to 392. But in 2020 those abuse claims increased to 455 and then as of October 2021 418 cases were reported.
But experts agree that the number may be even higher as many reports of abuse are not reported and go unnoticed.
The YWCA’s Wise Options program offers the county’s only emergency housing option for victims of domestic violence.
While the shelter, which can house between 20 and 40 people at one time, has fluctuated it’s numbers in years past, during the COVID-19 pandemic the shelter has been consistently full, according to Erin Timmins, advocacy and prevention supervisor at the YWCA.
In addition to the shelter, Wise Options also offers counseling services, emergency rehousing support and assistance with court filings.
Domestic violence reports have increased by between 60 and 100 each year, according to Timmins.
“During the COVID year, our numbers were the highest they’ve ever been before,” Timmins said.
But it’s not just the abuse cases that have increased, according to Amber Morningstar, program director for Wise Options.
“A lot of individuals have cases that are much more violent and they have a much higher risk of being seriously injured or killed when they try to leave,” Morningstar said.
In the county, 19 deaths from domestic violence have been recorded. One case was confirmed in 2020, however two additional cases from the past year may be added after they are adjudicated, Morningstar said.
The most recent confirmed domestic violence death was Kristin Walters, of Hughesville, who was shot in March, 2020, by her boyfriend Wesley Travis Minier who then shot himself. The couple’s two children were in the home at the time.
As domestic violence numbers increase, resources are stretched even more thin. According to Morningstar, there are consistently 30 or more people on the waiting list for rapid rehousing within Lycoming County and the surrounding counties.
Residents of the emergency shelter are staying long as they wait for permanent housing.