Not Safer At Home

By Leslie Westbrook   |   September 3, 2020

Quarantine can heighten the risk of domestic violence, but help is available

Maria Carbonell gratefully remembers the week she took refuge at a Domestic Violence Solutions safe house eight years ago. “A lot of people didn’t know I went to a safe house. I never shared it with anybody,” says Carbonell, 52, in a recent interview. She said it saved her life after a boyfriend tried to kill her and she had nowhere to turn.

“He choked me, he beat me. I almost had to be dead to get help,” says Carbonell, a longtime Ayurvedic healing practitioner. “I didn’t have family or a safe place to go in Santa Barbara, since he would know where I would be.”

Following a desperate visit to a satellite police station and a call to Domestic Violence Solutions, Carbonell was taken to a safe place to hide and, more importantly, heal and recover. She says it saved her life.

Intimate partner violence and sexual assault calls to the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department have dropped recently. But officials fear the decline is misleading and that abuse is going underreported because the pandemic is trapping victims in homes where they are not only not safer, but also find it harder to reach out for help.

Nerves can get frayed and tensions can mount when people are stuck in the same place for too long. The pandemic creates a fertile environment for the ingredients of domestic violence that existed before COVID-19, but it’s not business as usual in many households.

“Rabid unemployment, people staying home, some with children, and stress in the household, alcohol and drugs all make for a toxic mix,” says Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley.

So far, Santa Barbara is not reporting an uptick in calls to 911 or for civil restraining orders. This is cold comfort to the DA. “The numbers now aren’t what we expect, which means people are not reporting or calling,” says Dudley, who emphasizes that it’s OK to call 911 during the pandemic, even though the call may result in the perpetrator having to be removed from the home.

Crisis Situations can Re-stimulate Feelings

“Now more than ever it’s important to let people know they are not alone,” says Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright, sexual assault survivor.

Wright, 24, attended UCSB from 2014 to 2016 and has been an outspoken activist on campus. She has appeared in a national video campaign for RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) to discuss her abuse.

“I was so miserable in my relationship and I felt so alone because I thoughtno one understood what I was going through,” he wrote via email. “The sad reality is there are so many people in this world who understand the pain I was feeling. Hundreds of thousands of people every year are victims of rape, which means there are millions of people who can relate to those feelings. That isolation I felt is intentional, because so many abusers purposely cut you off from the friends, family, and anyone who could help you escape the situation. He had pressured me not to spend time with my friends who didn’t like him. I felt cut off from any support.”

Nguyen says she is aware of what those who have suffered or are suffering abuse are going through during this stressful time. “Right now, I live alone, and the isolation during COVID-19 has triggered so many painful memories of how lonely I was in that time,” she says. “I can only imagine what it must be like for people currently quarantined with abusers and isolated from any support services or help.”

Crises like natural disasters or the ongoing pandemic are well-established factors that can trigger violence between intimate partners. “Pandemics ignite the unknown,” the California attorney Maclen Stanley wrote in a May 2020 article in Psychology Today.

“During most disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes, we know whether or not we’ve been personally impacted,” Maclen wrote. “Although these events can be extraordinarily stressful, there is at least an established time boundary from which we can begin to assess damage and eventually move forward. But with viral pandemics, we are often left in an ongoing state of risk and worry, triggering an overexposure of the stress hormone cortisol.”

Elevations in stress hormones have long been associated with increased aggression and violence, according to the American Psychological Association.

Community crises or tragedies such as the Tea, Jesusita, or Thomas fires and debris flows, and, of course, this pandemic, restimulate traumatic feelings for sexual assault survivors, says Elsa Granados, Executive Director of STESA (Standing Together to End Sexual Assault).

“Most of us have coping skills that kick in when we feel overwhelmed or out of control. For survivors of sexual assault, it takes them back to a place in time where they were out of control,” says Granados, who added that STESA provides coping skills that sexual assault survivors can share with others. “We found that those with tools gained through our counseling are able to lead their own families out of the same feelings.”

To Protect and to Serve

Social isolation reduces the likelihood of third-party reporting of abuse from a neighbor, friend, a teacher, mailperson, or others who might notice bruises or other indicators. At an April press conference, District Attorney Dudley called for the community to come together and “watch out for our most vulnerable.”

Community leaders have echoed Dudley’s concerns. Jennifer Drury, a local family-law attorney who blogs about ways to cope with the pandemic, says, “I want friends and families to check in on people they know who are past victims.”

Drury, whose e-book Divorce & COVID-19 more directly addresses the legal ramifications that may occur with an expected uptick in divorces due to the pandemic, stresses that: “Shelter at home is not safer for some. Sheltering in place causes more opportunities for perpetrators (abusers) to abuse and silences victims more than ever due to them not leaving the home and likely having their devices (cell phones and emails) stalked by their abuser so there is no safe way to communicate and get help. I want victims to develop means of communicating, whether it be alerting a friend, or a pharmacist, so that they can seek help.”

STESA for Sexual Assault Survivors, Past and Present

Granados says the nonprofit formerly known as the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center changed its name to STESA to more clearly identify their mission to reach not just rape victims, but sexual assault victims of all genders (their original logo featured a woman’s face).

“COVID-19 has really hindered our ability to provide services,” says Granados. “We had to change our business model and shift from respectful, in-person contact and interaction – so we can sit with people as they engage in their healing process – to a safe tele-health model.”

In some cases, this is more convenient for those seeking counseling.

“All of our services – educational, counseling, and self-defense classes – are now available through safe, confidential, telehealth, non-contact means,” says Granados.

Initially, STESA saw a drop in new clients during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, but lately they are experiencing a steady increase in people reaching out. For recent victims in acute situations, the organization also provides support throughout the process including during any forensic examinations with a nurse.

Even events like the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford during the nomination hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, can trigger a recall of past abuses.

“We saw an uptick in calls during the Kavanaugh hearings – mostly from women. Our hotline was hot during that time!” says Granados. “Many women in our community told me they thought they’d dealt with these issues decades ago but that it was all coming back for them. It wasn’t from a place of shame or sadness or embarrassment, but a place of anger, because it felt like things hadn’t changed.”

The trauma of sexual assault never goes away – but it can be addressed.

“We had a client in her eighties – she had been assaulted as a young girl and never told anyone, not her parents, siblings, children, or husband,” Granados explains. “She’d carried that with her (all those years) and she told us that she didn’t want to take this with her to her grave. After several sessions, she said, ‘I think I’m good now.’ We assured her that there was nothing she could have done differently. She got to a better place and thanked us. People carry it and it’s heavy.”

Domestic Violence Solutions: Providing Safe Shelter

“Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate,” says Jan Campbell, executive director of Domestic Violence Solutions, which provides safe shelter and counseling. “We’ve seen people of all different income brackets. The real issue is resources.”

Domestic Violence Solutions has 81 shelter beds in two facilities. Its Santa Barbara shelter is a congregate living facility with eight rooms for individuals and small families seeking safety. The facility in Santa Maria is an apartment complex with nine, two-bed apartments, making it safe during COVID-19 for an individual or family to isolate. The nonprofit also provides food, clothing, and children’s items, including diapers and infant formula. DVS helps its clients with long-term financial goals including housing and has placed 105 people in permanent housing to date.

“It can take a few days to create a feeling of safety for those who have been traumatized and are worried,” Campbell says. “Our number one goal is safety.”

When Sheltering in Place is Not Safe

Here are some statistics on sexual assault:

1. One in every four women has been sexually assaulted and one in every six men (many by clergy or leaders in the Catholic Church, Mormon Church, or Boy Scouts of America).

2. Eighty-five percent of assaults take place between people who know one another – friends, relatives, an apartment manager, people who are dating, spouses, or domestic partners.

3. Spousal rape is pervasive and COVID-19 stay-at-home orders can make it even harder to call a hotline or a friend for help.

4. Transgender people are highly targeted.

5. It takes an average of seven assaults before a survivor of domestic abuse leaves the abuser.


Whether you are experiencing sexual violence now or are dealing with the effects from a previous incident, the Santa Barbara area has resources ready to help.

CALL or TEXT 911 for immediate help

A Safe Place

DVS – Domestic Violence Solutions has safe housing available during COVID-19 for those in need

The only agency in the county that provides emergency safe shelter, support, and counseling to those fleeing intimate partner violence and servicing all sexes and genders. Two shelters, a congregate living facility in Santa Barbara, and an apartment complex in Santa Maria provide 81 shelter beds. Remote counseling available. Outreach to partners includes educating medical community to recognize intimate partner violence has been stunted due to COVID.

The Healing Journey

STESA – Standing Together to End Sexual Assault

Counseling for people of all genders and sexual orientation who have been sexually assaulted, whether recently or in the past. Formerly known as the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, STESA empowers people through healing and social change to eliminate all forms of sexual violence. STESA staff of four full-time employees and ten trained volunteers are committed to transforming lives by providing services and education to meet the needs of our diverse community. 24-hour, bilingual hotline and safe, remote counseling services, free of charge: (805) 564-3696

RAINN – Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network

National sexual assault hotline

Call (800) 656 HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Sherriff’s dispatch – direct phone (805) 683-2724.


Although the courts are mostly closed, they open briefly for emergencies such as EPOs (Emergency Protective Orders) issued by law enforcement at the time of a qualifying incident, and for TROs (Temporary Restraining Orders), which victims get privately either on their own, with the assistance of Legal Aid Foundation (non-profit) or a private attorney.

For those pressing charges, the District Attorney’s office has victim and witness advocates to help navigate the court system as stress-free as possible. They help both victims and witnesses once a case goes to court. Contact the District Attorney’s office Victim/Witness Advocate at 805-568-2400 for more information.

Legal Aid Foundation provides free legal aid to low income clients. Phone: (805) 963-6754,

Jennifer Drury, a private family law attorney and volunteer at Legal Aid Foundation, has created a free e-book series on COVID-19 and Domestic Violence.

Call 805-879-7532 to request a copy, email or visit where downloads are being updated regularly including the e-book on domestic violence. Divorce During COVID-19 also has a section on domestic violence.


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