By Katherine Cloutier and Sara McGirr
“Perpetrator mapping has been a great tool for advocates who are working with someone who is minimizing what’s happening in the home quite a bit.” D explained that this minimization is often used as a safety measure among survivors, especially during times when access to resources is limited and the survivor recognizes they may be sheltering with their perpetrator for the foreseeable future. D continued, “…having someone come to the full realization of the danger they’re inside of, while they’re stuck inside of it, is not trauma-informed at the moment.”
In a recent post, we shared the creative and strategic ways that the Oregon Department of Human Services staff and co-located domestic violence (DV) advocates are partnering with survivors and prioritizing emotional support for their clients during the COVID-19 crisis. To do so, ODHS staff and advocates are leaning heavily on Safe & Together tools, validating survivor strengths, and acknowledging survivor safety planning while having to shelter with their perpetrator and children. But staff and advocates didn’t stop there. Second to providing that emotional support, staff and advocates had to get even more strategic with the mapping of perpetrator behavior.
ODHS staff and advocates are creatively using Safe & Together’s ‘Mapping Perpetrator Patterns Tool,’ which provides a structured set of questions to quickly assess and document a perpetrator’s pattern of behaviors to better identify the impact this has on family functioning and safety. ODHS staff and advocates know that the recognition of perpetrator patterns is key for case documentation and safety planning, respectively. Working separately, but in conjunction with one another, advocates are utilizing these tools to develop effective safety plans with survivors, while ODHS staff are tasked with mapping perpetrator behaviors for their documentation. Both may be operating with limited details coming from the family. The mapping tool allows them to understand the pattern of behavior, while simultaneously respecting that minimizing these details may be part of the survivor’s safety plan.
Perpetrator Pandemic Behavior
So what do perpetrator behaviors and the impact on family functioning look like during a pandemic? What did ODHS staff and advocates identify when they used the mapping tool? D explained, “From the advocacy perspective, we’ve noticed the severity has increased. We were expecting that to happen. People who use power and control will use anything that’s happening to maintain that, and when the government is implementing safety practices that involve that stay at home piece, we were expecting that that was going to potentially give those with those power and control tactics something to use.” Having to remain in the home with a perpetrator also means the survivor is likely waiting to call the hotline until they feel like they absolutely have to. Finding the safety to make these calls from within the home is challenging and dangerous, which explains the drop in hotline call frequency and the significant increase in call severity.
Alongside this increase in case severity, there has also been an increase in requests for shelter. D and Cheryl mentioned partnerships with motels across the state to provide quarantining options for women and their children prior to introducing them to shelter settings and residents. Because of the current pandemic, survivors are often unable to seek out alternate shelter options, such as moving in with a family member or friend. It is also impacting survivors who worry that an emergency room visit due to a DV related injury could mean exposure to COVID-19 for them and their children.
Perpetrators are also using the threat of COVID-19 infection as a control tactic, preemptively blaming their partners for family exposure if a survivor leaves the home, even if they are leaving to go to work, to buy groceries, or worse yet, to seek medical attention for a DV related injury. This preemptive blaming is being used to keep the survivor inside the home, and strategically minimize any independence or connection with the outside world.
Perpetrator control via technology has always played a part in DV work, but it has definitely shifted during this pandemic.
D explained, “There isn’t necessarily more tech stalking happening now, it’s just a different level of access. People who were being stalked in the home through their technology would go use a public computer, or a friend’s phone, or a friend’s computer. So, access to other technologies that aren’t being tracked, that is quite limited.”
With the stay at home orders, perpetrators have more access and opportunity to track internet activity, controlling and restricting how and when survivors can access services or reach out for help.
There have been a number of less expected behaviors too. From the advocacy side, women have reported perpetrators purporting apocalyptic warnings, suggesting that the world is ending and that he needs to kill his family to save them. Perpetrators are also keeping their partners from accessing soap, sanitizers, masks, and other protective equipment/practices to prevent them from leaving the house, or to punish them if they do leave. There have also been reported cases of stimulus checks and unemployment benefits being taken from survivors, and an increase in reported stalking by previous partners. Related to the heightened severity across DV cases, standoffs between perpetrators and the police have increased, and in some cases, perpetrators are being held for less time in jail to help curb the spread of the virus. The processing of some cases has also been stalled due to the restricted operations and protocols of the court system.
Self Care & Worker Safety During a Crisis
During the pandemic, Safe & Together’s emphasis on worker safety has become more significant than ever. For advocates and ODHS staff who are still engaging in in-person activities with selected clients, an overall focus on worker safety is important for many reasons. One, in-person activities are limited to cases deemed very severe, and two, workers who are navigating those severe cases need added protections to lessen their risk of exposure to the deadly virus. This means that ODHS staff and advocates are on the frontlines of two severe issues, COVID-19 and DV. As Cheryl explained, “In those situations where we’re getting serious domestic violence cases, we are not relying on technology. Welfare workers are still going out and doing face to face and just trying to do that in a socially distanced way. People are safety planning with their staff around how to do that…There have been some really nice donations to child welfare. People in the community have made masks for workers and donated them…But, it’s still very difficult to get anything that protects the worker…So, we’ve had workers that have been exposed, and workers that have the virus now. It’s a challenge all the way around.”
Furthermore, the increase in case severity is having a profound impact on ODHS staff and advocates alike, especially for those who identify as survivors themselves. There is a significant amount of vicarious trauma happening in the field, and it’s important to remember that advocacy services are there for the advocates and ODHS workers, just as much as they are for their customers. Worker safety remains a central focus for Safe & Together, and is highlighted across Safe & Together blog posts and Partnered with a Survivor podcast episodes.
You can access the Safe & Together COVID-19 Quick Practice Guide to see more information
about how the current crisis is impacting DV and child welfare more generally, and you can also review the Oregon ODHS guide to understanding coercive control especially as it applies to custody issues during the pandemic.