Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Experts are convinced we are on the precipice of a domestic violence crisis fueled by anxiety, stay-at-home rules and economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The big picture: There is already early evidence of increased intensity of abuse of people in unhealthy relationships. But given that many are unlikely to seek help until things are more stable — either by calling hotlines or by leaving for shelters — we likely won’t know the full extent of the abuse until the virus outbreak subsides.

  • With partners and children potentially trapped at home in bad situations, experts worry that there could be more abuse and that the issues people face in bad relationships could get even worse.
  • There’s evidence that is happening. The police in Seattle — one of the first cities hit with an outbreak — have reported a 21% increase in domestic violence reports.

Details: The ingredients for an increase in intimate partner violence are clear. Survivors are more isolated, their abusive partners are under more stress, and the options for escape have become more limited amid the outbreak.

"Something that might have been emotional or financial might turn into physical [abuse]," says Crystal Justice, chief development and marketing officer for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

  • Justice said the hotline has heard from people whose abusers are preventing partners from going to work at essential jobs or from accessing safety measures, including basics like soap and hand sanitizer. Abuse is about power, and many abusers are using the pandemic to control in new ways.
  • There have also been calls from people whose abusers are threatening to use firearms when they've never done so before.
  • The hotline's overall call volume hasn't increased, but Justice said she wouldn't expect it to, especially considering many people are sheltering with their abusers.

Between the lines: There is also concern that violence will further increase with job losses and other economic pressures, as it has in past crises.

  • “Domestic violence often escalates during and after a disaster,” said Connie Neal, executive director of the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
  • “Because survivors of domestic violence are often already isolated, with limited access to financial resources and social networks, it can feel even more challenging to find and receive the support they need."

Nathaniel Fields, who runs Urban Resource Institute — the largest shelter system in the country, with 12 shelters in New York — said the organization saw spikes after 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. He anticipates even more issues related to the coronavirus, even if they don't hear about them until the health crisis abates.

  • He stresses that many shelters are open for those who are willing and able to leave and that the organization has taken steps to ensure residents have access to food, health care and other resources.

"The messaging is to stay home and stay in place," Fields said. "That’s not the message for domestic violence victims."

  • But Fields said he knows that survivors face a tough choice in weighing the risks of staying at home against those posed by leaving in the middle of a pandemic. "It's a balance," Fields said.

The legal picture is also complicated. Courts that hear family issues may be closed for regular business, though in many cases they have set up remote filing or other procedures to handle emergency protective orders for those trying to exit an abusive relationship.

  • Likewise, legal aid attorneys also remain available in many places, says Susan Pearlstein of Philadelphia Legal Assistance.

Leaving an abusive relationship often takes months or years, Pearlstein said, adding that being forced to shelter in place has made it more challenging to make those calls, whether to a court, a shelter or even a friend.

  • "All of the barriers that make it hard to leave are exacerbated," Pearlstein told Axios.

Experts are concerned about a range of secondary issues beyond those caused directly by the coronavirus, ranging from an increase in anxiety and loneliness to suicide and child abuse.

  • "I would make the plea for more funding for mental health organizations and providers," Nancy Lublin, CEO of Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit that lets people in domestic and other crises ask for help by text, said in an interview for "Axios on HBO." (You can see the full interview here.)

How to help: The biggest thing people can do is check in with individuals they know who may be in unsafe relationships, Justice said, adding people can offer to set a check-in time or have a code word that can be used if help is needed.

If you are in an abusive relationship and want help, there are many resources, including local and national hotlines. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached by calling 1-800-799-7233, by texting LOVEIS to 22522 or by going to thehotline.org. Crisis Text Line, which addresses a range of issues, can be reached by texting HOME to 741741 and via Facebook Messenger from the organization's website.

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