Domestic abuse survivors face greater obstacles in seeking help during the pandemic


Domestic violence organizations in Northern California have seen a decrease in calls since the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders were issued in mid-March.

Organizations serving Asian Pacific Islander communities said the orders have further complicated their clienteles’ access to services.

Organizations such as the Asian Women’s Shelter in San Francisco said calls to its crisis hotline spiked just before the shelter-in-place orders were implemented, and have since decreased. Orchid Pusey, executive director of the organization, said that was to be expected with the reduced privacy at home during the shelter-in-place orders. She said those who called prior to the shelter-in-place orders described experiencing more intense and complex issues in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve had callers who are just worrying because they knew things would get bad and they knew that their normal sources of support would not be available to them,” Pusey said.

The pandemic and the resultant public health orders meant survivors could not take steps they would usually take, such as going to a parent or neighbor’s home, especially if their source of help is a senior, as they are at greater risk to COVID-19.

Pusey said her organization has received calls from survivors who are over the age of 60 themselves.

Survivors who already suffered from abusive partners who controlled their resources and movement, now face “a new level of fanaticism” in light of the anxiety caused by the pandemic, Pusey said.

“It’s not just physical violence that went up, it’s the control, the coercion, that has gone up, even though that’s not necessarily reflected in the number of people who have the chance to make a hotline call,” Pusey said.

Melissa Luke, associate director of wellness services at AACI in San Jose, said she expects calls to increase again as the shelter-in-place restrictions relax. However, she said it is too early to tell just how the pandemic has affected domestic abuse rates.

While calls have dropped, Pusey and Luke both said their organizations have received more text messages. Luke said, a program that offers online chat services in English, Vietnamese and Spanish, has seen an increase in chats since the lockdown began. Various domestic abuse agencies have partnered together to support the program. Pusey said her program supporting Arab women, which accepts text messages, has also seen an increase in use.

Language Is Key To Access
Although text-based help is more accessible for some, Pusey and Luke both noted that language barriers make it difficult for many, especially recent immigrants, to reach out. Both AACI and Asian Women’s Shelter found that the community’s knowledge of their culturally relevant employees as a resource are often integral in attracting callers.

“Calls fluctuate with when the community knows that someone who speaks their language works there,” Pusey said. “So you could have no calls in one language … for years and years and years, and then you hire a full-time advocate who speaks that language, or even honestly you hire an accountant who speaks that language, and people find out, and then suddenly those calls go up,” she said.

Thus, Pusey said while people in San Francisco are able to text 9-1-1, doing so in English may be too much of an obstacle, even for those who speak some English.

“Just about everybody is going to learn the verbal language faster than they’re going to gain literacy in it. So I think it’s great that they started it, but most of the people that we work with would not text 911,” Pusey said.

Dean Ito Taylor, executive director of Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, also explained that some in the Asian community also do not trust the government. As such, survivor support services must not be connected to it, he said.

“Services like law enforcement or public agencies, even connected with the City and County of San Francisco, they’re not really that accessible for folks because they don’t trust them,” Ito Taylor said. “Our people are still struggling with the second class citizen mentality, and it’s being promoted by our federal government. So that promotion of anti-immigrant sentiment makes it even more difficult for folks that are distrustful of the systems already, to reach out and ask for help.”

Ito Taylor said language barriers have limited survivors’ access for decades, especially for recent immigrants. He said the issue was even more difficult when domestic abuse was not a part of various Asian languages’ vocabularies.

“Like in the ‘70s, we couldn’t go out and talk to many groups of people about domestic violence because they didn’t know what we were talking about. Or, they didn’t want to know,” he said. “So I think, language-wise, they’ve gotten more clearer because, obviously, the Asian countries have also realized that they have been hiding a history of domestic violence or violence against women. We may be a little bit more advanced in address(ing) it as part of the social services and legal systems, but I think that language barrier is still there.”

Serving Nationally
These organizations, however, also face a lack of national coverage. Although Northern California is home to three multilingual organizations that are dedicated to serving Asian Pacific Islander domestic abuse survivors, the rest of the country lacks such resources. According to Luke, there are only nine API-specific domestic violence shelters in the continental United States. She said that while her organization does not turn anyone away, she would prefer to connect callers with resources closer to where they live, especially if they involve legal issues.

“Court systems of each county are very unique,” Luke said. “In domestic violence situations, there can be multiple layers of legal need.”

Still, Luke said her organization had recently fielded a call from Alaska, while Pusey said she had worked to resettle a survivor from Missouri. While Ito Taylor’s organization has offices in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif. and an outpost in Stockton, Calif., the organization takes calls from across the country. Similarly, Nilda Guanzon Valmores, executive director of My Sisters’ House, in Sacramento, said her organization serves Central California, but they have assisted those who are from outside the region.

“We don’t necessarily say no. We may not necessarily say yes, but if we can help them, we do,” Valmores said.

“If we were county restricted, we would be abandoning so many Asian communities who have nothing in their counties,” Pusey said of her organization.

Reaching Out
Survivors who are seeking help often do not know what options are available to them. Pusey said the hotline is a confidential resource that offers care and support at the survivor’s request. She stressed that her organization does not pressure callers to take any specific action, including leaving an abusive situation or working with a case manager.

She said her organization offers judgment-free support regardless of the person’s immigration and economic status. There is no limit restricting how many times survivors may call. Ito Taylor agreed to this approach.

“You can’t force the survivor to do something. The survivor has to do something for herself or himself. So even though you have good motivations and all that, people have to understand that all they can do is offer the options, offer that assistance, and let the survivor decide,” he said.

“But, certainly, people could communicate that there are services available. We’ve been around for 40 years, and people still, especially in the Asian community, they still may not know that there are services available in all of the areas that we work in. One strong suggestion is, let people know what’s available and let people know that they’re not alone, that this is not a unique problem to them.”

Valmores said looking into symptoms of abuse and keeping track of abusive behaviors can help give potential survivors clarity.

“Usually there’s a pattern, if there’s consistency, then it’s more than just a valley of a bad relationship,” she said. Although survivors do not need to take immediate action, Valmores said that it can be helpful for them to think through their plans while sheltering in place, whether they are mentally preparing to leave, or preparing their children as well.

As abuse victims may not realize that what they are experiencing is abuse, Valmores emphasized that friends and family should keep in touch with potential victims and initiate conversations.

“Talk about domestic violence and abuse and see if they know what resources are available, and if they identify themselves as being a victim and are willing to get the help to take the next step,” she said. She stressed that people should believe survivors. “Sometimes, people don’t reach out for help because they believe that nobody’s gonna believe them.”

Keeping track of survivors has become more difficult than ever, as they can no longer leave the home to see friends or go to work. “In a normal world, if people are not allowed to go out and are overly controlled by their spouse, … those are telltale signs, right?” Ito Taylor said. “But now, what makes it even more difficult for us to access folks that need assistance, is that everybody’s trapped in their homes. It’s very difficult to see people to begin with, but then you can’t tell the difference between being under someone’s control or just being safe.”

Although domestic abuse between romantic or domestic partners remains a primary focus for the various organizations working with survivors, organization heads said the pandemic has been hard on victims young and old. Ito-Taylor noted that seniors are likely to be impacted far more by abuse, not only because they are at a higher-risk to COVID-19, but because they have difficulty accessing help. He said most elder abuse is perpetrated by family members, making it difficult to easily spot.

“They’re more worried about survival, both in terms of food scarcity, and care, and the fact that they’re the target, in the high-risk category of the virus” Ito-Taylor said. “So they’re very susceptible to abuse and … they’re just going to endure it.”

Luke also noted that, while survivors trapped at home with their abusers face considerable difficulty accessing resources while being required to shelter-in-place, she added that people who had been dealing with rebuilding their lives from abuse also face considerable hardship.

According to Luke, many of these single parents lived paycheck-to-paycheck working in industries that have been devastated by COVID-19, including the restaurant and hotel industry, or in hair and beauty salons.

“We’re also seeing survivors who were well established or who had left our services, they were doing well, and they’re coming back now,” Luke said.

Based in San Francisco, the Asian Women’s Shelter operates a confidential 24-hour crisis help line at 1-877-751-0880 in more than 40 languages. The organization provides emergency shelter, case management, and special programs for Arab women, LGBTQ survivors and children of survivors. Their Website is

Based in San Jose, AACI Asian Women’s Home operates a confidential 24-hour crisis hotline at (408) 975-2739 in 13 languages. To receive in-person legal assistance, call the hotline to set up an appointment at the San Jose Family Justice Center. Visit for more information. The organization partners with other South Bay domestic abuse organizations to run Safe Chat Silicon Valley at The chat services are in English with Spanish and Vietnamese advocates available upon request.

Based in Sacramento, My Sisters’ House serves predominantly Asian-language speaking survivors, including those who speak Japanese, as well as some Middle Eastern languages, in the Central Valley. Their 24/7 crisis hotline is (916) 428-3271. Their Website is

With offices in Oakland and San Francisco, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach offers help during regular office hours at (415) 567-6255 and (510) 251-2846 in eight different languages, including Japanese. Information is also available in-language on their Website at

Additionally, the following are API-focused domestic violence shelters in the continental United States:

Apna Ghar, Chicago:

Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence, Boston:

Asian Women United of Minnesota, Minneapolis Minn.:
Center for the Pacific Asian Family, Los Angeles:

Hamdard Center for Health and Human Services, Chicago:

Korean Women’s Association, Tacoma Wash.:

For tips on intervention as a bystander of potential abuse, visit Or visit


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