Following the March 23 issuance of a stay-at-home order, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) warned community organizations to prepare for a spike in domestic violence reporting. So Swatee Kulkarni, acting president of non-profit Mai Family Services (MaiFS), was surprised to find that the organization’s domestic violence helpline had not seen an increase in calls. In fact, the number of calls — including those from regular clients — decreased significantly. It wasn’t cause for optimism. The trend indicates, instead, that victims no longer feel they have the privacy and personal security they need to reach out and ask for help.
As most of us imagine them, “shelter-in-place” orders designed to “flatten the curve” of the novel coronavirus mean staying at home — ensuring our own safety and that of our communities and country at large. But what does a lockdown mean for someone to whom home is not a safe place? For victims of domestic violence, who comprise the majority of clients served by Michigan non-profit Mai Family Services (MaiFS), being grounded at home means being locked in with a perpetrator. It means having nowhere to hide and no way out.
Sailaja Dronamraju, one of MaiFS’s three case workers, says several clients known to be living in domestic violence situations have sent word that they feel uncomfortable continuing communication with Dronamraju with their spouses at home, who they fear might react violently if this communication were found out.
Founded in 1986 as a small endeavor to help out struggling friends and family, MaiFS has provided crisis intervention and prevention services to over a thousand individuals both in and outside Michigan’s South Asian community, “regardless of gender, religion, and ethnicity” and using holistic, culturally sensitive approaches. While MaiFS clients range from individuals struggling with drug abuse to seniors in need of assistance, the majority of cases encountered by MaiFS are those relating to domestic violence. Domestic violence situations are often linked to economic precarity and unemployment, meaning COVID-19 could present an additional threat.
Dronamraju says that MaiFS strives to “help the person where they are,” meaning that answers will look vastly different from case to case, based on the needs and desires of the client. Some of the most common forms of support provided by MaiFS are legal assistance, provision of safe housing, connection to counseling resources and employment assistance. The goal, in all cases, is to help individuals and families get out of situations of crisis as soon as possible and reach a place where they can be independent and thrive.
MaiFS case workers are highly experienced in the social work, each having worked over 20 years in the field. “Once a person knows you care for them,” explains Sashital, “they automatically connect with you.” Accordingly, MaiFS case workers build trust with their clients slowly by using culturally sensitive counseling techniques to ensure that every client feels welcomed, accepted and cared for. Given that many of the organization’s clients are of South Asian descent, MaiFS case workers, between them, speak several of the subcontinent’s myriad languages and can call on trained volunteers to accommodate other linguistic needs.
The organization’s direct services team has considered its current predicament — no uptick in calls from domestic violence victims — in a culturally aware way. Staffers suggest that domestic violence victims on dependent visas may be depending on a spouse for all basic needs, and the need for round-the-clock child care presents another barrier to seeking help. Uncertainty around the safety of returning to a home country, and fear of risking deportation when involving law enforcement, might also be factors.
A core piece of the MaiFS mission is to dissemble harmful norms prevalent in South Asian culture by lifting such stigmas and making it known that it is okay to ask for help in a situation where one does not feel safe. There is a grassroots element, too, to the services MaiFS provides; individuals and families who have seen firsthand the support gleaned from the organization’s services often spread word to their own communities and social circles. Those interpersonal networks may be more important than ever in a time like this one. MaiFS emphasizes that if you or someone you know is in a domestic violence situation, seek help from someone you trust or contact the free MaiFS hotline at (888) 664-8624.
There is a devastating irony to this situation: Measures enacted to safeguard public health will also keep thousands of people directly in harm’s way. “For most people, lockdown means being in a safe environment,” Sashital says. “But for our clients, it’s the hardest situation.”
MaiFS can be reached securely atNational Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at (800) 799-7233.