Domestic violence shelters in Eastern Iowa are busy year-round, but when winter arrives — especially in a struggling economy — already tense relationships can become more dangerous.
Victims choose to stay in abusive relationships because the weather makes it difficult to leave or find alternate housing. Abusers become more violent as cabin fever raises their temper. And a weak economy forces victims to reconsider leaving a job or a supporting partner — especially if children are involved, said Delaney Dixon, assistant executive director of the Iowa City-based Domestic Violence Intervention Program.
“We are starting to see an increase in people trying to stay with partners because they have to take all these things into consideration,” Dixon said. “People ask, ‘Why don’t they just go?’ Because the opportunity just isn’t there.”
The Iowa City-based program served 1,800 people in 2011, and Dixon said the request for shelter increased more than 37 percent from 2009 to 2011.
Despite the growing demand for domestic violence and shelter services, funding cuts are forcing shelters to become more creative with their resources, Dixon said.
The Attorney General’s Office has divided the state into six regions, and it will fund just one to two domestic violence programs and one to two sexual assault programs and emergency shelters in each region.
The Iowa City-based domestic violence program is looking at a 24 percent funding cut this year, and Dixon said shelter officials are planning ways to coordinate services to make sure everyone can get the help they need. But even with cooperation and coordination between providers, Dixon said, she expects there will be victims and situations that escape their reach.
“Law enforcement and other agencies are going to get many more calls and see an increase in domestic violence as we are dealing with funding cuts,” she said.
Dixon said shelters are a “front-line” domestic violence response service, meaning victims often come to them before or without going to police. Victims often don’t want to get authorities involved because of fears they’ll anger their abusers or add stress to the situation.
But, she said, it might come to that in the future if funds keep shrinking — especially during the dead of the winter or the height of the summer, when tempers can flare.
When it comes to law enforcement activity, the number of domestic violence-related calls for service can peak when the weather turns cold — November, December and January — and when temperatures rise — like during June, July and August.
Still, law enforcement officials say it’s hit or miss, and while some years see a spike in calls around the holidays, some years see a drop.
“It’s like when people say, ‘Whenever there’s a full moon, you get more calls for service,’ ” Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said, “sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
For his office, January was among the top months for domestic violence-related calls in both 2011 and 2012, along with August. Gardner said many of the calls they do receive in the winter months are related to overspending, too much family time and alcohol.
In the summer months, domestic disputes seem to be related to the heat and — once again — too much family time as some people are home on summer break.
“You get everyone back at home again, you add high temperatures, and you can’t cool things down literally, so tempers flare,” Gardner said.
Some of the lighter months for domestic violence calls are in the spring and fall, when weather-related woes seem to ease.
Bob Hartman, a domestic violence investigator with the Iowa City Police Department, agreed that call numbers can ebb and flow from year to year depending on a variety of factors, including the weather and the economy.
When Hartman was on patrol, he said, it seemed the holiday season was busier with extended family members crowding houses and adding to stressful situations — not to mention the extra drinking.
“The alcohol is flowing, emotions are flowing and you have to be aware of the situation and circumstances when you are handling those types of cases,” he said. “The amount of people who can be in homes during situations like those can make it trying at times.”
Sex abuse increase
One common form of domestic violence is sexual abuse, and Karla Miller, with the Rape Victim Advocacy Program in Iowa City, said her agency’s victims also feel more stress and fear this time of year.
“I definitely think that when you look at the stressors, there is an increase in acting out on the part of the abusers,” Miller said. “And there are more people who witness the abusive behavior.”
Miller said people who are chronically abusive want to be in control, and they lose control over the holidays. They battle concerned family members, and they lose the ability to isolate their victims.
“Holidays are when we look outwardly and do things for other people and spend time with other people,” Miller said. “For someone who has to be the center of attention, that is intolerable.”
She also expressed concern that rising economic pressures could continue to inflame combustible relationships in the future and funding cuts to service agencies could keep victims in dangerous relationships longer.