Local domestic violence shelters worry many abuses cases went unreported last year in lockdown

When the world locked down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Su Casa domestic violence shelter in Long Beach saw a surge in calls from women needing help, said community outreach director Dean Lockwood.

Many of them were trapped at home with their abusers. Their stories were similar.

“The money stopped and there was no place for them to go and they were around each other all day and it just blew up,” Lockwood said. “That’s what we heard from a lot of the women.”

Some of Long Beach’s domestic violence shelters and mental health organizations said they saw an increase in need last year in the pandemic, but they fear that more abuse likely went unreported as victims were unable to get away from their abusers to call for help during lockdown.

In one case, a woman called the WomenShelter of Long Beach while hiding in the bushes in her backyard, said Executive Director Mary Ellen Mitchell.

“We actually did not see a huge increase in the number of people reaching out to us last year and it is worrisome,” Mitchell said. “They may not have been in a safe place to get in touch.”

As the pandemic wanes, the shelters and mental health groups say they’re now preparing for a possible increase in need this year as more people are back at work and more children are in school.

Patricia Costales, chief executive officer of The Guidance Center in Long Beach, which provides mental health services for children and families, said calls to the child abuse hotline for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Service dropped by about 50% last year.

The drop in child abuse reports in Los Angeles County mirrored similar decreases across the country last year.

Costales said the numbers likely dropped because children were at home and away from mandated reporters like teachers, recreation leaders, church staff and more.

“I’ve been quite worried about our kids and families during ‘Safer at Home’ because tragically we know for lots of kids home isn’t safe,” she said. “I worry about what we will see when kids return to school in person.”

Costales said The Guidance Center has been in talks with the Long Beach Unified School District about possibly ramping up its services when more children return to school this fall.

The center last year launched a virtual therapy program for older kids and the program has been so successful that they hope to expand it, she said.

While child abuse reports went down, Costales said the center saw a significant increase in referrals from psychiatric hospitals for people needing acute mental care.

“There were a lot of people feeling like they were a danger to themselves or others,” she said.

Overall reports of domestic violence were mixed last year, with some cities, like Los Angeles and Indianapolis, reporting increases while others saw no changes.

In Long Beach, domestic violence calls for service increased by 3% last year with 2,105 calls, compared to 2,036 in 2019.

The numbers show calls for service did not increase in the months of March, April and May after Long Beach and LA County issued “Safer at Home” orders, compared to 2019. 

Of the murders in 2020, about 8% were connected to domestic violence, down from 12% in 2019.

Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert, who files misdemeanor domestic violence charges, said he’s still filing cases from last year as he has up to a year to file a domestic violence charge. He expects to see an increase for 2020.

“I believe that domestic violence as a percentage of all our cases is going up,” he said.

Anecdotally, local domestic violence shelters say they saw about a 20% increase in women needing help last year.

The demand was so high at Su Casa that the shelter partnered with a county program to place clients in hotel rooms, Lockwood said. The shelter also had to buy new computers and boost its wireless internet to help children who were learning remotely.

Lockwood said Su Casa’s shelters remain full, but the organization plans to expand its access this year thanks to a $1.25 million grant from the Day 1 Families Fund, which was launched by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Thyda Duong, a program director at Interval House, said calls for help doubled last year, while the organization’s six emergency shelters and transitional housing sites in Long Beach and Orange County were all at capacity.

Duong said she also saw a huge need for other help including food and rental assistance.

“This past year has been really hard,” she said. “Our already vulnerable households have just been devastated.” 

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Kelly Puente is an award-winning general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. She has worked as a journalist in Long Beach since 2006, covering everything from education and crime to courts and breaking news. Kelly previously worked at the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Orange County Register before joining the Post in 2018. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].