"Imagine being quarantined in the most dangerous place for you."
During the shelter-in-place order, that terrifying thought is a reality for people in abusive relationships with an intimate partner, local experts say.
There are a growing number of indicators that all is not well in the home lives of many in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
Last week, the Santa Clara County Sheriff's office recently announced that it had seen a 46% increase in the number of calls for service related to domestic disturbances since March 16, when the shelter-in-place orders began. Ken Binder, assistant sheriff, said that domestic disturbance calls represent any type of disturbance with a potential for domestic violence in unincorporated areas of the county and in communities where it is contracted to provide law enforcement.
Other numbers haven't increased significantly, but that doesn't mean there's not cause for concern. For instance, the number of domestic violence calls didn't skyrocket overnight when the shelter-in-place orders went into effect, according to the San Mateo County sheriff and Menlo Park Police Department.
San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos told the county Board of Supervisors on April 7 that there has been an increase in the number of domestic disputes, and that domestic violence reports had continued during the shelter-in-place orders, but it was still too early to say whether there'd been an increase in domestic violence.
According to Menlo Park Police Chief Dave Bertini, the number of domestic violence cases was down to nine in March this year compared to last March's 10 cases.
In an interview, Bertini said that the number of domestic violence calls the Police Department has been receiving is comparable to what it sees during a high-incident time of the year, like the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, when people are generally in close quarters, alcohol may be involved and arguments may arise.
"This has been a very long Thanksgiving weekend," he said.
Comparing the first three weeks of the shelter-in-place to the same three weeks the previous year, the number of domestic violence calls in Menlo Park is significantly higher, he said.
There were 12 domestic violence cases, one child abuse case, no hate crimes and a total of 181 criminal cases reported between March 16 and April 20.
The previous year, during the same period, there were eight domestic violence cases, five child abuse cases, no hate crimes and 331 criminal cases reported.
The data was provided after Menlo Park Councilwoman Betsy Nash asked for numbers in response to community concerns that domestic abuse and child abuse, as well as hate crimes, particularly against Asian American residents, may be on the rise.
At the San Mateo County courthouse, the number of restraining orders for domestic violence being filed is slightly up in March 2020 from March 2019, according to District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.
"But we cannot conclude that this is due to the shelter-in-place," he added, speculating that "there is some clear logic to it" – tempers can get short when one is cooped up at home, and alcohol sales are up as well since the pandemic started.
The court will continue to review and issue domestic violence restraining orders without limitations because of the pandemic, he said.
When the Police Department responds to domestic dispute calls, they put people in contact with CORA (Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse), San Mateo County's main support network for people experiencing domestic abuse.
CORA operates a 24/7 hotline that provides resources like counseling, legal support and emergency shelter to people who experience domestic abuse, and continues to operate at full speed during the pandemic.
"They really are the first-line level of support," Bertini said.
Even without a global pandemic creating new stressors and fewer escapes in strained households, domestic violence is prevalent across communities. About 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men in San Mateo County will experience domestic violence, according to CORA.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the San Mateo-based nonprofit to adapt rapidly to changing community needs.
Not only is CORA "building the airplane as we go," said Daniel Holloway, marketing officer at the nonprofit, but it is "parachuting while juggling cobras too" as it works to keep community members safe from both a deadly virus and potentially deadly home situations.
While it's still early to have concrete data on any changes in the prevalence of domestic violence since the shelter-in-place orders began in mid-March, Holloway said that CORA has seen a slight increase in the number of calls to its hotline number and a "notable" increase in calls involving the police department.
And even though the volume of calls coming in to the hotline has only slightly increased since the shelter-in-place orders began, he said, the calls have been more complex.
Since the shelter-in-place orders can make it harder to easily get out of earshot of an abusive partner, the hotline is getting calls from victims that last only a few minutes at a time, for instance, while an abuser is temporarily away.
In response, CORA's representatives on the other end of the phone line have had to figure out how to condense the advice and guidance they provide clients to be delivered quickly and sometimes without all the context about the victim's situation they'd like to have, he said.
CORA is also seeing a significant increase in traffic to its website and social media interactions, Holloway said, suggesting that perhaps people are looking for safer, more passive ways to find information.
The shelter-in-place orders build on another major barrier for victims looking to escape bad home situations: the high cost of housing in the Bay Area.
"It was always a huge reason people stayed in abusive relationships," Holloway said.
With the economic fallout of the coronavirus, it may be even harder for people to find an affordable new housing situation right now.
In Santa Clara County, Carla Collins, manager of Santa Clara County's Office of Gender-Based Violence Prevention, said at an April 16 press briefing that the global pandemic has added stressors, such as financial burdens, that can often make home an unsafe place.
"All of this can negatively impact survivors and actually create circumstances where safety is further compromised," Collins said.
Esther Peralez-Dieckmann, executive director of Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence, has seen those effects. Without a private space such as the home or the office, calls to hotline centers have decreased, a signal that domestic violence survivors are having a difficult time in reaching out.
"When our clients have been able to reach us in the past, it's usually at a time where they have some privacy, during the day with people at work," she said. "But right now, during the shelter-at-place order, the victims are often housed with the perpetrator, so it's very difficult."
In addition, public health mandates have forced CORA to decrease the capacity at its safe houses to ensure social distancing among residents.
The maximum capacity for CORA's emergency shelter in the county is about 40 residents, which includes survivors and their children.
It's also not yet clear the degree to which fears about the coronavirus have been weaponized by abusers against their victims. But it is something CORA is keeping a close eye on, Holloway said. "Abusers are not stopping because of coronavirus. If anything, it gives them another tool to expand their terrorism," according to a message on the CORA website.
"It's not every day you can use social distancing to control someone," Holloway said. Abusers often rely on isolating victims from friends and family to make them more vulnerable.
"Just as not everybody who has COVID-19 has symptoms, abuse may be hard to see," said Tanis Crosby, CEO at YWCA Silicon Valley, in an interview. "There is help available."
YWCA Silicon Valley is a San Jose-based nonprofit organization that provides a broad range of support services for domestic violence survivors, from housing assistance to therapy.
People who have questions about a relationship, feel isolated, want to talk to somebody, or need help to develop a safety plan should reach out, Crosby said.
YWCA Silicon Valley offers a 24-hour hotline at 1-800-572-2782.
The nonprofit, with other organizations, also offers Safe Chat Silicon Valley, a web-based chat tool that allows domestic violence survivors in Santa Clara County to have a real-time conversation with a confidential advocate. Access it at safechatsv.org.
The 24-hour CORA hotline, for residents in San Mateo County, is 1-800-300-1080.
"If you can, please call the hotline. We are here to help," Holloway said.
The hotline isn't just for people who are looking to leave an abusive relationship, but to help people through whatever relationship abuse they may be experiencing, he added.
CORA is working to transition some of its services to be provided virtually.
In dangerous situations, people who feel uncomfortable calling 911 from home can call the Menlo Park Police Department's business line or go to its stations in Burgess Park or Belle Haven.
People can also send a text to 911, which can be more discreet, or may ask a friend or family member to call the police, said Bertini.
CORA hasn't adopted a texting hotline because of concerns that doing so can create a digital record that might lead to harm to victims if their abusers find it, Holloway said.
For people who are experiencing or are concerned they are at risk of experiencing domestic violence, county courts continue to provide services for domestic violence, including issuing domestic violence restraining orders.
One of the primary pieces of advice CORA offers is that people confide in a trustworthy friend or family member and create code words to use to check in. Code words should signal messages like "things are good," or "I need help," and if they need help, the person should be instructed when to call the police.
Resources are available for survivors, including hotline centers and online chat rooms that connect people one-on-one with domestic violence advocates — all of which are free and confidential.
Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence's hotline can be reached at 408-279-2962.
For more information and resources, visit sccgov.org.
Want to help?
CORA is requesting donations of items such as pull-up diapers, feminine hygiene products, thermometers, masks, gloves and toys made of hard plastic that can be easily disinfected.
Legos, in particular, are "as good as gold in the safe house" for helping to keep kids stuck indoors busy, Holloway said.
Find a full list here. People can drop off items at CORA's offices at 2211 Palm Ave. in San Mateo on Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
People should ring the bell at the front door, set the items down and step back to the sidewalk while they wait. An employee will pick them up and leave out a slip of paper to access necessary tax forms.
More resources in Santa Clara County can be found here.
Palo Alto Weekly Editorial Assistant Lloyd Lee contributed to this report.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.