by Maya Hilty
SHEBOYGAN – Experts worry abusive relationships across the county, state and nation have worsened over the past year-and-a-half.
The pandemic, in some cases, isolated people at home nearly 24/7 with their abuser, and in other cases decreased the stability of households through housing, income or job loss — which can be triggering factors for abuse.
In Sheboygan, Safe Harbor’s domestic violence helpline “exploded” last summer, with a 25% increase in calls for help, according to Vanessa VanderWeele, the organization’s volunteer and community engagement coordinator.
Safe Harbor of Sheboygan County, Inc., serves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Sheboygan County. On Thursday, Safe Harbor and partners are hosting Sheboygan’s first Take Back the Night rally to shine a light on domestic violence in Wisconsin, featuring local poets, national speaker Jackson Katz and a flower release into the Sheboygan River.
Domestic violence-related homicides in Wisconsin hit a record high in 2020, according to a recent report by End Abuse Wisconsin, a statewide coalition of advocates, attorneys and experts.
Last year, 58 people in Wisconsin died in domestic violence-related homicides — the highest number since End Abuse Wisconsin started recording domestic violence homicide reports 20 years ago. The victims ranged from age 3 to 73 and lived in 17 counties across the state, not including Sheboygan County.
The report also found that more than half (55%) of the homicide victims were not a current or former intimate partner of the perpetrator — rather, they were relatives such as parents, grandparents, siblings and children who were bystanders to the abusive relationship.
“That really shows that domestic violence affects everyone,” VanderWeele said.
In Sheboygan, one big impact of the pandemic was that people calling Safe Harbor for help were more often looking for support than looking to flee their situation.
“With schools closed and work being remote, a lot of people didn’t have opportunities to flee from their abuser, so a lot of our services were helping people through that situation,” VanderWeele said.
The pandemic led to a decrease in reports of domestic violence and sexual assaults to Safe Harbor, because some people weren’t able to get away from their abuser to reach out for support and many people were more hesitant to go to the doctor because of COVID-19, she said. It also raised concerns about childhood sexual assault and child abuse because many people’s childcare changed, with more children at home with friends or family members.
Take Back the Night rally and march
Take Back the Night is an event that started in the 1970s in cities across the country to raise awareness about domestic violence and violence against women.
The rally Thursday will be the first time the event has taken place in Sheboygan.
“Domestic violence is definitely something that is happening in our community and we want to bring awareness, and we also want to show that our community supports victims,” VanderWeele said.
The rally will begin at Peace Park at 6 p.m., followed by a walk to Rotary Riverfront Park. There will be a reading of the names of 2020 Wisconsin domestic violence homicide victims, a flower release into the Sheboygan River in their memory, and readings by local poets including Emalie Kamin and national speaker Jackson Katz, the co-founder of the multi-racial, mixed-gender Mentors in Violence Prevention program, one of the longest-running gender violence prevention programs in North America, according to a news release.
There will also be advocates from Safe Harbor available to talk to people at the event.
Here’s what domestic violence can look like and how to get help
Safe Harbor, established in 1990, provides a variety of services for victims and their families in Sheboygan County (and sometimes beyond), including a 24/7 helpline, in-person advocacy, accompaniments with law enforcement and in hospitals, an emergency shelter available to adults or families, and in-house therapy and support groups.
The organization works with children, adults and people of all genders, races and economic backgrounds. “We serve everyone from 0 to 100 and beyond,” VanderWeele said.
Safe Harbor considers domestic violence to be any violence or abusive behaviors within a relationship, VanderWeele said.
That can mean physical abuse, including sexual assault and marital rape, but there’s a lot more to domestic violence than just physical abuse, she said.
Violence can also take the form of financial abuse, where an abuser controls someone else’s finances or ability to be employed; emotional abuse, where an abuser gaslights someone or makes them feel like they’re so unworthy that they can’t leave their current situation; or spiritual abuse, where an abuser uses someone’s spirituality against them.
“It revolves around power and control,” VanderWeele said. When one person exerts power over another, that is abuse.
Safe Harbor’s 24/7 crisis helpline (1-800-499-7640) is available to connect victims with local resources and support. The Wisconsin 24/7 Hmong speaking resources helpline is 1-877-740-4292.