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Domestic violence has spiked in county since start of pandemic

STORY BY MARY SCHENKEL (Week of September 17, 2020)

Domestic violence has spiked in Indian River County since the start of the coronavirus pandemic as a result of stress caused by job losses, financial instability, eviction threats and people stuck at home together, according to SafeSpace, a nonprofit that serves victims of domestic violence.

Aimee Markford, the county Sheriff’s Office’s CFO and a SafeSpace board member, said the sheriff’s Victim Advocates Unit reports showed a slow rise in domestic violence cases in March and April 2020 that accelerated dramatically in May and has remained high since.

SafeSpace CEO Teresa Albizu said reported cases are “just the tip of the iceberg. What happens is a lot of these instances go unreported. So, when you’re hearing these large increases, you can only imagine what’s going on behind closed doors [that is not reported].”

Albizu said that while most calls to law enforcement are from the victims, other victims are held hostage at home, with access to the Internet or telephone forbidden, making it difficult for them to seek help.

“They continue to suffer in silence at the hands of the abuser,” said Albizu. “This is a very, very serious issue.”

The COVID-19 shutdown enhanced a social isolation tactic already employed by violent domestic abusers.

“By isolating victims from friends, family or any outside contacts – teachers, healthcare clinics or employers even – the abusers are able to exert more control over the victims’ entire environment,” Albizu said. 

“When you think about it, severe and persistent isolation, which is what we’re seeing now, can cause victims to solely rely on their abusers. That feeds the cycle of abuse, and it’s very difficult to escape from it.”

While SafeSpace has remained fully operational, its only emergency shelter, located in Martin County, serves the entire tri-county area, including St. Lucie and Indian River counties. To comply with social distancing during the pandemic, the number of residents was cut in half, from about 40 adults and children to around 20. 

Despite that constriction, Albizu said, “we do not deny access to anyone. If we are at full capacity, we have sister agencies to whom we refer for shelter,” Albizu said.

SafeSpace offers a range of outreach services to help women and children move away from an abusive relationship and into an independent life. 

“That is where the impact is. It’s not just receiving them and giving them safety for a number of nights; it’s how do you help them move forward with their lives,” said Albizu.

 In Indian River County, 728 individuals made hotline calls asking for help between June 2019 and June 2020.

“That’s a staggering number for Indian River County,” said Albizu.

“We all have a responsibility to address the issue of domestic violence in our community. We cannot turn our backs if we see certain signs that alert us or suggest that someone is suffering from this situation,” said Albizu, stressing the importance of recognizing the signs of physical as well as emotional abuse. 

Physical signs of abuse are more obvious, such as black eyes, bruises or breaks to arms and legs, along with strained wrists – “a big one” according to Albizu.  Emotional signs include agitation, anxiety, fear, development of a drug or alcohol problem, depression and suicidal thoughts.   

“We can make an intervention and say, ‘Listen, is there something going on?’” said Albizu. “Without judgment, we need to tell them that there’s an agency here that can help. I know they’re difficult conversations, but we do have a responsibility to not say ‘oh poor thing’ but have a little bit more of a conversation and let them know, ‘You are not alone.’”

Albizu, who joined SafeSpace as CEO three months ago during the pandemic, said the organization has top-notch advocates and staff.  

“They are excellently trained and have an incredible interest in helping these victims,” she said. “Victims will receive not only the human care but also the professional care that they need in order to transition to an independent life free of violence.”

According to Albizu, COVID-19 has only escalated an already deadly serious problem. In the United States, she said, one in four women has been a victim of some sort of domestic abuse in her lifetime, and three women are murdered by their partners every day.

“That is a really staggering number ...  and often children are involved. The problem is the emotional and psychological effects that this environment has in children,” Albizu said, noting that nationally, 15 million children are either recipients of violent aggression or witnesses to it. 

That reality became all-to-evident last month, when a local man was charged in the death of his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter, who died of severe physical injuries at her home while her mother was at work.

The SafeSpace Hotline is 772-569-7233 and website is