At the start of the holiday season – in a typical year – the Bellevue-based nonprofit LifeWire would invite dozens of people to pick out gifts for their kids and family. Survivors of domestic violence would browse shelves of donated clothes and toys, selecting items to gift wrap for their loved ones.
But the past two years have not been typical.
LifeWire has pivoted to online programs amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates and survivors meet over Zoom to figure out housing plans or participate in virtual support groups. This past holiday, staff got on FaceTime with clients to pick out gifts; one family picked a pink winter coat and an Anna doll from the animated film “Frozen.”
Though the holiday shop hasn’t been quite the same, the services at LifeWire have continued to be meaningful to the 1,336 people the nonprofit served this past year. The agency connects survivors of domestic violence in King County with housing, legal and mental health services, and is the newest of 13 nonprofits highlighted by The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need.
The pandemic not only forced LifeWire to adjust its programs, it also pushed up domestic violence numbers. In 2019, calls from county residents to the National Domestic Violence Hotline hovered below 200 a month. In April 2020, at the start of the first stay-at-home orders, the calls rose to 229, and in March 2021, they went to a high of 258.
Rates of emergency room visits due to domestic violence in the county have also recently risen, as have counts of referrals for felony charges and restraining orders. Worst of all, domestic violence-related deaths in King County surged to the highest numbers in at least 25 years, according to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office: 29 deaths in 2020 and 25 in 2021. This includes killings by intimate partners, as well as suicides related to domestic violence and the deaths of good Samaritans trying to intervene.
David Martin, chair of the domestic violence unit at the prosecuting attorney’s office, looks at these numbers and tries to make sense of them.
“It’s not just homicides between intimate partners or families,” Martin said. “It manifests itself in so many other areas. Domestic violence offenders are killing other people in the community, taking their own life, or potentially being associated with officer-involved shootings.”
“My office holds data, but I really feel like we should be having epidemiologists looking at these things, not lawyers.”
There’s no one look that defines a survivor of domestic violence.
Age is not a factor – teenagers and older people are among those who have sought LifeWire’s help. While the overwhelming majority are women, there are also male survivors. Race and ethnicity are not meaningful aspects, and neither is income.
“It was a real surprise to me,” said Tevin Medley, LifeWire’s housing stability services manager. “I had some idea in my head as to what a survivor looks like. But it is something that is just so prevalent in our society.”
While rising rates of domestic violence are concerning, advocates like Medley also worry when the data is lower than expected, as that can mean people can’t call for help because they’re in close quarters with violent partners or family.
“Sometimes at home is the place that they are least safe,” Medley explained.
“We are typically mobile advocates, so we go out and meet with people, meet them in the community, at a library or walk around the park and chat.”
The organization has been forced to be nimble amid the pandemic – some advocates are still meeting with survivors in person when possible, others are providing phones if need be or texting them when their partners are away, leveraging the discretion of technology.
LifeWire has also been challenged by housing during the pandemic.
“We were seeing people who were being pushed out of apartments because they couldn’t afford them because they lost their jobs,” said Wendi Lindquist, a communications specialist. “Then on the other side, we were seeing people coming out of abusive relationships, looking for a new place to go and there was nowhere for them to land.”
The organization continues to look for short- and long-term housing options. Currently it has an emergency shelter and a transitional housing site that totals 20 units; all of them are now in use. Some are occupied by moms living alone while they work to gain custody; others typically have one to three children living with them.
Sally’s journey to finding help in Washington state took years, and she has a thousand stories about navigating the rocky path to safety.
Sally, a former client of LifeWire who requested her last name not be used, came to the U.S. from Egypt when she was 19. She didn’t plan to stay, but her mother and sister had moved to California and she joined them, eventually getting married.
The problems started right away. There was verbal, mental and physical abuse from her spouse, she said. But he was the main source of income, she was now 24, and they had a son. On top of that, Sally was still figuring out her immigration paperwork. Her house, her phone and her network of friends and family were all intricately linked to him.
Police were called after a fight in a public setting.
“After three years, I said enough is enough,” Sally said.
Sally entered into a grueling legal battle with her husband, she recalled. He persuaded her to take back part of her declaration of abuse to police, she said, which she called “brainwashing.” Abusers often try to reconcile with their intimate partners, sometimes promising change and initially being kind before restarting the cycle of violence.
Sally tried leaving a second time, fleeing to Canada to stay with other family members while her divorce finalized. She found out she was pregnant again, and eventually found herself with little support. She said it felt like being “out in the middle of the ocean and trying to hold onto anything.”
Sally found the challenges kept piling up: Money, work and housing were hard to come by. She was removed back to the U.S., where she had citizenship, but struggled to find a place to live.
“I rent a sofa in the garage, I stay in a car, I stay in a park, me and a little one. I slept on a church floor,” Sally said. “That broke me. And it’s hard for mom to feel that broken for her kids.”
She was connected to LifeWire in 2013, shortly after the birth of her second son. The agency helped her find emergency housing as well as clothing and food for the kids. A social worker guided her through available services, and programs like LifeWire’s financial literacy classes taught Sally more about banking and how to set up her own accounts. She also started counseling and learning more about mental health and how to manage her anxiety and depression. Eventually, she found a job at a kitchen washing dishes and enrolled in college.
Sally is currently wrapping up her studies at Bellevue College as a lab technician. She hopes to transfer to the University of Washington, where she can get a bachelor’s degree in health informatics.
She is still connected with staff at LifeWire, and now helps other women informally as they navigate their own way out of domestic violence.
Looking to 2022
As we enter a third year of the pandemic, domestic violence advocates and experts worry about what new challenges may come – but they are also hopeful.
Martin from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office hopes the conversation will shift into one with “a greater investment of a public health approach to domestic violence.”
“I think the legal system is a critically important part of responding,” he said. “But it’s not the only thing.”
Medley envisions a future at LifeWire where more people, not just survivors, work to end the cycle of domestic violence. That includes perpetrators of violence, many of whom are men.
“It’d be cool if more men were kind of thinking about these things and what their role is,” Medley said. “What does it mean to be a man in a society where that kind of patriarchy exists? And what are you doing to change it?”