MARINETTE — In the ultimate scenario of making a bad situation worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to greater fear, more stress and higher anxiety for victims of domestic abuse.

A local expert said the climate in Wisconsin mirrors that of much of the world — that domestic abuse attacks and deaths are on the rise in recent weeks.

“In our own community we are seeing the same pattern as across the state, which is that call volumes have significantly dropped off since the pandemic began,” said Courtney Olson, the executive director of Rainbow House Domestic Abuse Services in Marinette. “We believe that victims are trapped in homes with their abusers and they don’t have the privacy or ability to reach out for services.”

Olson has the numbers to back her up. From 2016-2019, on average, 77 people died each year in Wisconsin from domestic violence. Just over five months into this year, Wisconsin is on pace for 107 domestic violence-related deaths for the year. In that same time, deaths in Milwaukee County are up more than 500 percent from a year ago.

Olson said it’s no coincidence that the number of deaths have gone up with more people staying at home in the past several weeks.

“It really seems like the pandemic is intensifying the risk factors,” she said. “We’re seeing a real escalation in homicides around the State of Wisconsin, so safety planning becomes really important.”

Because of the stay at home or safer at home orders in much of the country, including Wisconsin and Michigan, victims may be forced to spend more time than usual with their abusers. Many people have lost their jobs or have been laid off, which means they are at home more often.

Olson said unemployment by a perpetrator is one of the driving factors in domestic violence. “I believe that is having a significant impact,” she said. “As households become less stable there is a lot more conflict and it is erupting”

And when it does explode, victims may be finding it difficult to reach out for help.

Olson said she’s heard of victims calling from the shower, or reaching out while accessing essential services, such as trips to the pharmacy or the grocery store. She makes it clear that shelters like Rainbow House are available to help.

“Our message to survivors: We are still open and serving their needs 24-7,” she said, adding that the shelter has a Crisis Line, a Text Line (see pullout box) and victims can call or text 911.

Olson said the shelter advocates can assist victims in safety planning. She said the courthouses are still open and still processing domestic violence restraining orders, although they are being done virtually.

“Victims are liking it better than having to face abuser in court,” she said.

Olson stressed that Rainbow House is still providing all the same services that it did before. That includes shelter, on-line support groups, restraining order help, safety planning, resources and referrals on housing, employment and other things people might need.

She said the shelter’s pantry is well stocked.

“We just got a new shipment of commodities in, so we have groceries and personal hygiene products that we can bring out into the community and drop off for people,” she said. “And we will meet with survivors face-to-face out in the community and outdoor public places.”

The closing of the schools, according to Olson, has put a roadblock on one area for detecting domestic violence.

“One concern is family violence got reported through the schools and with children now at home, there is less opportunity for them to report (domestic abuse) or for a teacher or school counselor to notice if something is wrong,” she said.

To that end, Olson said citizens must be more aware of their surroundings.

“We really do need to ask our neighbors to be more cognizant,” she explained. “If you hear something going on. Domestic violence isn’t a private family matter, it’s a community concern and it is OK to call and report that.”

“We need to raise awareness to the severity of the problem,” she continued. “We encourage people to reach out for services. If they have a loved one that they haven’t heard from for awhile and they suspect there may be abuse going on in the relationship, it’s a good time to connect and just check in on people and make sure they are OK.”

Olson added that the Rainbow House is maintaining all its social media. There are updates daily on the shelter’s Facebook page about resources available to victims. There’s also information on the Rainbow House website for people who want to donate to the shelter.