• The Star Staff

Who bears witness to a hidden epidemic?

By Lauren Kelly

Within the first few weeks of states’ going into lockdown, reports began flooding in from domestic violence hotline centers throughout the country: They were seeing spikes in calls. But as sheltering-in-place dragged on, the calls for help dropped off. To those familiar with the dynamics of intimate-partner violence, this was not a good thing.

That domestic violence is part of the story of this pandemic is well known: Lockdowns have made it more difficult for domestic violence survivors to distance themselves from their abusers; orders of protection often take longer to come through because courts aren’t operating at full capacity; experts have viewed the decline in calls for help with alarm, as it suggests survivors might not be able to get away from abusers long enough to reach out.

But if covering domestic violence, which takes place mainly behind closed doors, is difficult in normal times, telling the story of its rise during a time of lockdowns and quarantines poses an even bigger challenge. That is why Christopher Lee, a photographer, opted to focus on the hotline workers. He began photographing them in the Austin, Texas, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston metro areas in May.

According to Dr. Noël Busch-Armendariz, director of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin, 38% of adult women in Texas in 2011 reported having been in an abusive relationship. The stay-at-home orders have had a severe effect on the most vulnerable women, and domestic violence centers are bracing themselves for the worst.

In Texas, which reported record numbers of daily cases of COVID-19 four times last week, the governor signaled Friday the possibility of a new economic “lockdown” if the state cannot curtail its outbreak.

Like so many people around the globe, those who answer phones for domestic violence hotlines are working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. With the benefit of technology, advocates and counselors have been fielding calls, texts and emails from survivors from their kitchen tables and living rooms. Their experiences on one end of these calls help shed light on stories going untold.

Veronica Hernandez, a hotline operator and advocate at SAFE Austin, says she’s seen an uptick in reports from a wider array of survivors than usual: men who’ve been abused, youth who’ve been trafficked and people who’ve been hurt by nonromantic partners such as roommates. She’s also sensed that those who call have grown more desperate — she hears more frequently from women who are actively fleeing danger or have already had violent interactions with their abuser. Before the pandemic, callers would be more likely to say they had experienced non-life-threatening behavior or abuse, such as emotional or psychological abuse or behavior that could evolve into something violent. Now they are getting calls that go from zero to 60 in an instant.

As the stories have grown more desperate, the work has grown more challenging. Hotline workers who once counted on the commute between office and home to decompress from stressful professional lives no longer have that sense of separation. “Bystander trauma is real,” said Milisa Alexis-Flores, managing attorney for the Houston office of Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, a nonprofit that provides legal aid to domestic violence survivors. “We all experience it doing this line of work when you consume other people’s trauma for a living.

That’s just the nature of the job, and it’s always challenging, but it’s more challenging in a different way when you’re doing it at home.”

But “I at least am still able to try to decompress in the safety of my home, which my client cannot do,” Alexis-Flores said.

These images don’t quite shed light on the domestic violence that is currently on the rise in private spaces around the world. What they do highlight is the parallel world of the hotline operators, working from their homes, speaking over the phone to survivors calling from rooms that at first glance probably look very similar; what sets them apart is the danger.

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