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BOONE — Times of isolation and uncertainty like the COVID-19 pandemic could potentially exacerbate abuse for those in unhealthy or abusive relationships, according to OASIS Outreach Coordinator Sara Crouch.

For the past few weeks, citizens have been urged to socially distance themselves from others due to the threat of the virus. Going a step further, North Carolina went under a stay-at-home order on March 30 to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order 121 mandates that North Carolinians stay at home unless going out for essentials. Many community members have been laid off or furloughed from work, as only “essential businesses” are allowed to operate.

Crouch said OASIS experiences a rise in calls from clients when they are stuck in the house with a partner for longer periods of time — such as after a large snow storm.

“Everyone is being told to stay at home,” said Jonathan Perry, managing attorney of Legal Aid of North Carolina’s High Country office. “Unfortunately, home is the most dangerous place for a lot of people.”

Serving both Watauga and Avery counties, OASIS (Opposing Abuse with Service, Information and Shelter) understands that the stay-at-home order and isolation is taking place to keep people safe and healthy, Crouch said. She added that OASIS doesn’t advocate that these measures be overturned. However, she said the community does need to continue to check in with their friends and family to ensure that loved ones stay safe if they are in a domestic violence situation.

Crouch explained that abusers in intimate partner violence develop a pattern of behavior that is coercive and is rooted in power and control.

“In a situation like we have right now, nobody has control,” Crouch said. “Nobody has that power right now. Everybody is probably feeling a little bit of powerlessness and fear. When it comes to abusive relationships, that lack of power or the loss of power can be really explosive as the abuser tries to regain power in some aspect of his or her life.”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline explained different ways how COVID-19 could uniquely impact intimate partner violence survivors. According to the organization, an abusive partner might withhold necessary items (such as hand sanitizer or disinfectants); share misinformation about the pandemic to control or frighten their victims or to keep them from seeking medical attention; or withhold insurance information from the victim if they were to need medical assistance.

OASIS uses a “power and control wheel” graphic when explaining the pattern of abusive or violent behavior that was originally developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. This wheel includes actions such as coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, denying/minimizing/blaming, using children, economic abuse and gender privilege. The actions of isolation and economic abuse are the two that Crouch said OASIS officials are most worried about during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Isolation is a tactic that an abuser may use to gain power over the victim by controlling what they do, who they see and talk to, what they read, where they go and by limiting their outside activities. Often the feeling of jealousy is used to justify their actions, Crouch said. The added layer of isolation and uncertainty from COVID-19 can intensify the abuse, according to Crouch.

“Isolation works to limit the victim’s understanding of what’s going on in their relationship,” Crouch said. “They’re having a hard time comparing what’s happening in their life to what a healthy relationship could be or what a safe relationship could be.”

Economic abuse — under normal circumstances outside of a pandemic — is when an abuser would prevent their partner from getting a job so that they rely solely on the abuser for money, demanding that the victim work more to support the family or making the victim ask for money or an allowance, according to Crouch. As families continue to experience financial uncertainty due to the pandemic, economic abuse could be on the rise.

Since abusive actions — whether physically, emotionally or sexually — are typically an ongoing issue, Crouch said it was unlikely that a perfectly healthy relationship would suddenly turn abusive due to the isolation.

Legal Aid of North Carolina’s High Country office and OASIS stated on March 26 that victims of domestic violence are still able to file for and obtain restraining orders from the courts during the pandemic. This is taking place even though most court proceedings have been delayed in the state. According to Watauga County Clerk of Court's office, the courts remain open to assist victims of domestic violence and protective orders will continued to be processed.

The High Country office of Legal Aid and OASIS developed a process in Watauga County to help victims during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have developed a process in Watauga County, so victims are able to draft their complaint remotely, file it remotely and even when possible attend the hearings remotely,” said Michelle Grit, interim executive director of OASIS. “We want to ensure survivors still have access to services even during times of restricted movement and public health concerns.”

Both agencies are offering comprehensive services to obtaining restraining orders. According to Crouch, a domestic violence protective order can last for up to a year, and directives in the order may vary depending on certain factors — such as if custody of children is involved. For more information on these services, contact OASIS at (828) 262-5035 or the local Legal Aid office at (828) 355-4891.

If a community member is showing signs of illness and/or are otherwise unable to come to court, they are urged to call OASIS at the aforementioned phone number and the Clerk of Superior Court at (828) 268-6600. If in immediate danger, the Clerk of Court's office advised people to call 911. The OASIS Watauga County crisis line can be reached at (828) 262-5035; the Avery County crisis line can be contacted at (828) 504-0911. Both crisis lines are offered 24 hours a day. 

OASIS staff are working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, but can be available for face-to-face services. The agency is still offering its emergency shelter for victims, and completes a detailed disinfectant checklist for the health and safety of those in the shelter, Crouch said. OASIS is also still offering medical advocacy for victims who need assistance at hospitals, but will offer to talk with the victim over the phone or meet with the victim at a different location before or after the hospital visit.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline encourages people to practice self care and reach out for help if they feel unsafe during this pandemic. For support from the National Domestic Violence Hotline, call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY. If a community member is unable to speak safely, visit thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.

In the recent weeks, staff at OASIS have experienced an increase in calls to its agency with concerns about COVID-19 typically being discussed, Crouch said. While the agency can’t say that the pandemic is the cause in the uptick in calls, Crouch said the situation could definitely be a catalyst. She said people are mentioning the pandemic in their phone calls to the agency, and are requesting assistance with resources such as grocery store gift cards or gas cards to function during this time or for more information about their emergency shelter.

At the same time, OASIS could be experiencing an increase in calls due to the closure of the SAFE Inc. shelter in Wilkes County in February. According to the Wilkes Journal Patriot, the SAFE Inc. 14-bed shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence closed due to lack of funds. Crouch said that since the amount of resources for victims has gone down significantly due to the closure, that could also be a reason why more people are seeking OASIS assistance.

Crouch said OASIS is in desperate need of donations. The agency is especially in need of monetary donations, whether that be by cash, checks or gift cards for local grocery stores and gas stations. Grant funding the agency receives limits what money can be put toward, and OASIS needs help in providing groceries for clients, Crouch said. To donate to OASIS, visit www.oasisinc.org/get-involved. Checks can be sent to P.O. Box 1591, Boone, NC, 28607.

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