WISCONSIN (SPECTRUM NEWS) -- We've all felt the stress of the pandemic in one way or another, but if you're in an abusive relationship that stress can lead to more violence, even death.

As Wisconsin communities start to reopen, many survivors say they still feel trapped.

Empty streets, empty businesses, empty schools.  It's how much of the state looked for seven weeks.  And under the state order to stay home, not everyone was safe.  "Pre-COVID we knew that we had an escalating homicide rate," Carmen Pitre told us.  

As President and CEO of Sojourner in Milwaukee, Pitre says the numbers tell the story of a different crisis.  Domestic violence.  

This year In Milwaukee there were 13 domestic violence-related homicides, before COVID-19.  By mid-May that jumped to 24.  This same time last year, there were just five homicides related to domestic violence.  Pitre said, "what we worry about is escalating violence, escalating stress in people's lives."

It's what Pitre calls the lethal end of the spectrum.  Abusers who are pushed too far.  "Violence looks like the only way out," Pitre shared.

And Milwaukee Police are seeing more of that violence during the pandemic.  According to MPD, along with an increase in homicides, non-fatal shootings related to domestic violence are also up.  Lieutenant Annemarie Domurat said the department noticed a spike in mid-April. "There was a 28% increase in the amount of domestic violence reports we filed compared to last year."

Lt. Domurat is part of a team that reviews domestic violence cases at high risk for homicide.  "I'm surprised at the level of violence, as far as the homicides going up," Domurat told us.  She called the situation completely tragic and said there's also the concern of people not asking for help.  "People might be afraid to reach out or not know what resources are available to them right now."

Not all parts of Wisconsin are seeing this violent trend, but for those who work with survivors concern is at an all-time high.

Jane Graham-Jennings is the Executive Director of The Women's Community in Wausau.  "We're still cautious. We're still anticipating we'll see a spike in those calls."  She said when Wisconsin's Safer at Home order was issued it was eerily quiet.  Graham-Jennings remembered "our phone lines were pretty quiet, walk-in's were pretty quiet."

Graham-Jennings believes survivors will endure more now, then before the pandemic. "All the survivors that are talking to us are like 'I'm just holding out until something.'  They don't know and we don't know what that something is, but they're just in a holding pattern."

Over the last few weeks The Women's Community has seen more survivors reach out to them and law enforcement, but they have not seen a jump in numbers. "When we look at our numbers from this time last year, maybe a 2 or 3% increase but not a whole lot," Graham-Jennings said.

In Brown County, the sheriff's office told us arrests for domestic violence and overall disturbance calls were actually down during Safer at Home.

It's not something that surprised Pitre.  "I've never believed the call rate is an indicator of the level of violence," she commented.  Pitre knows many survivors feel leaving may no longer be an option.  "They're afraid, they're less likely to leave, shelter doesn't seem like a good option because I'm going from my home to community living," Pitre explained.

She believes this will lead to another crisis, one of mental health.  "You cannot be under such pressure, living with someone who's hurting you, living in terror," Pitre said.

With the long-term effects from COVID still unknown for survivors Pitre wants people to know there is help and hope out there.

And the message around the state from those who work with domestic violence survivors is "we are still here."  There's a program in every county, ready to help people find the best way to stay safe.


Numbers to call:

  • Sojourner Family Peace Center (414-933-2722)
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • 2-1-1
  • Milwaukee County resources

What You Need to Know:

Home is not a safe place for everyone. Domestic violence survivors need us now more than ever. We know people are trapped at home with people who hurt them. Help is available. It is OK to seek safety under the Safer-at-Home Order.

  • For people who are being hurt: Sojourner can help with safety planning, emergency shelter, filing restraining orders, advocacy and support. Call Sojourner’s 24-hour hotline at (414) 933-2722 or visit www.familypeacecenter.org
  • For people who are hurting others: The Alma Center can help heal, transform and evolve unresolved pain that fuels the continuation of cycles of violence, abuse and dysfunction in families and community. Call (414) 265-0100 or visit http://almacenter.org/ for help.