For domestic violence survivors in tri-county, staying home doesn’t mean staying safe

TRI-COUNTY — In the tri-county and beyond, officials are asking people to stay home to stay healthy and prevent the spread of coronavirus, but for people in abusive relationships, home isn’t always the safest place to be.

As people isolate at home, domestic violence complaints have spiked across the world, including in France, Germany, Singapore, Canada, the United Kingdom and Spain, according to a report by the United Nations. And as lockdown orders take effect into the United States, those problems have also surfaced stateside.

Across the country, law enforcement agencies and advocacy groups are reporting rises in domestic violence complaints — including increases in San Antonio and a 20 percent increase in Houston, NBC News reported this month.

It’s “a ticking time bomb for some families,” one sheriff said of shelter-in-place orders.

As the Big Bend has so far avoided any confirmed cases of coronavirus, the region  also has not yet seen a spike in domestic violence or abuse complaints.

But just like with coronavirus, officials and advocates in the region warn it could only be a matter of time before the Big Bend experiences the same issues currently plaguing other parts of the country — whether they be deadly disease or family violence.

“Tensions build,” Gina Wilcox, a program coordinator and advocate at the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend, said of people stuck at home in unsafe situations. “People use up their coping mechanisms to the point where nothing is working anymore.”

As lockdowns stretch on into April, the incidence of family violence and abuse will likely rise, Wilcox said.

“We were prepared for a huge surge, but we haven’t seen that yet,” she said. “I feel like we will.”

In Marfa, the Family Crisis Center’s liaison is Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez. Marquez says Marfa has not yet seen a rise in domestic violence — a fact he attributes, at least in part, to the fact that local orders have allowed Marfans to “leave their houses to do exercises and get a breath of fresh air.”

“I believe that might be helping,” he said.

Still, he said Marfa police have responded to “a couple arguments” at homes during the local lockdown and are remaining vigilant about domestic violence issues as shelter-in-place orders continue.

“We’re trying to keep an eye on it,” he said. “We don’t know how long this lockdown is going to last.”

Going forward, the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend estimates it will see an up to 100 percent increase in demand for services like counseling. That means potentially twice as many people in the region could soon be seeking solace from abusive situations and other problems at home compared to before the coronavirus pandemic.

But with or without more domestic violence, the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend says families in the region are already struggling — with dramatic spikes in unemployment and food insecurity.

In Terlingua, food deliveries from the Family Crisis Center to needy families shot up more than 150 percent, from 200 households served in March to 315 in April. And while the numbers of food deliveries are far smaller in Alpine, the spike was more dramatic, from around five or six deliveries per month to around 30.

Wilcox, the advocate, says the situation is particularly dire in south Brewster County — where towns like Terlingua meet Big Bend National Park and where tourism dominates the economy even more than elsewhere in the region.

Around 75 to 80 percent of workers in Terlingua are now unemployed, she said. And with coronavirus concerns hitting the region during what should have been peak tourist season in March and April, many restaurants and rentals have lost a lifeline.

In Presidio, the demand for services hasn’t increased as much. But that isn’t necessarily good news.

“There were already issues with employment in Presidio,” Wilcox said. In other words, residents of the border city were struggling even before coronavirus hit.

In Marfa, Police Chief Steve Marquez is recommending that locals reach out if they experience issues like abuse or food insecurity at home.

“I would recommend they make contact with us,” he said. “We can connect them to services we have in the area.”

Tri-county residents can also reach the Family Crisis Center’s hotline 24/7 at 1-800-834-0654. The group offers a range of services, from food, rent and utility assistance to counseling and advice for domestic abuse survivors. The center also has two emergency shelters for anyone who feels they might be in danger at home: one in Presidio and another in Alpine.

Wilcox stressed that men should also feel free to reach out to the group. “Men can be in an abusive relationship as well,” she said.

Nor do people need to be physically abused to reach out. “It’s important for people to know, especially in times like these, that emotional and psychological abuse counts as domestic violence,” Wilcox said. “Bruises and broken bones will heal,” but emotional abuse “goes much deeper into a person’s soul.”

People can also reach out “even if they just want to talk,” Wilcox said.

“We don’t force people to leave a relationship,” Wilcox said. “We’re not living their lives, and we respect their choices.”

The Family Crisis Center’s services are free and confidential. Again, its hotline number is 1-800-834-0654.