CHICAGO – Living alone with her two dogs, working remotely as a high school Spanish teacher and distancing from her parents due to COVID-19, Sarah Manos said she felt a little less lonely last April when the man she met on Bumble started buying her flowers.
But two months later, after the man tried to cut Manos off from friends and family and allegedly killed her two dogs, she discreetly packed her bags, fled to her parents’ house and called the National Domestic Violence Hotline, according to a civil suit Manos filed last week in Cook County circuit court.
“He wouldn’t have gotten his claws into me if I hadn’t been isolated,” said Manos, 27. County prosecutors did not charge the man, so Manos said she filed the lawsuit because she didn’t “want anyone else to suffer through what I went through. No matter how alone they make you feel, you truly are not alone.”
Nearly a year since the first coronavirus stay-at-home orders went into effect in the U.S., advocates are warning that survivors continue to be at high risk of domestic violence. With schools closed and many people laid off or working remotely, survivors may be in closer proximity to their abusers with fewer ways to access support services, less financial independence and greater fears about the safety of seeking services amid COVID-19.
“It’s been a real challenge for advocates and survivors,” said Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Not only have they had barriers they’ve had to navigate to seek safety when they’re ready, but they now have an added barrier of a pandemic. It becomes a tool for the person that’s causing harm – another tool to further control and exert power.”
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Domestic violence incidents in the U.S. have increased by 8.1% since the beginning of the pandemic, according to estimates released Wednesday by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, which drew on data from logs of police calls, crime reports, emergency hotline registries, health records and more.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline said that more than 23,000 people have called since mid-March mentioning COVID-19 as a factor in what they are experiencing. Calls to the hotline have been steadily increasing in recent years, but it’s not clear if the pandemic accounts for the continued rise. In fact, many survivors may feel they have less space away from their abuser to safely reach out for help.
“I firmly believe that once we’ve stepped out of the worst part of this, we’ll see the domestic violence numbers spike,” Glenn said. “You’ll begin to see more survivors stepping forward and reporting.”
But calls to hotlines have surged in different parts of the country at different times over the past year. New York saw a surge in reports last spring and launched a task force to identify ways to provide resources to survivors amid COVID-19. In Michigan, calls to the hotline run by the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence reached all-time highs last month.
“We got as many calls in January as we had gotten in the entirety of October through December, and that’s when we got almost as many calls as the previous year,” said executive director Sarah Prout Rennie. “After a year, people are finding their choice between a rock and a hard place … completely untenable.”
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‘I matter, and my dogs matter’
For Manos, the abuse began quickly. In April, as the U.S. was beginning to learn more about the novel coronavirus and institute stay-at-home orders, Manos wasn’t seeing her parents because they didn’t want to risk contracting or transmitting COVID-19, she said.
That’s when Manos connected with the man on Bumble.According to the lawsuit, he quicklypressured Manos into meeting in person and becoming his girlfriend. Early on, the man allegedly told Manos he had “disappeared” his ex-girlfriend’s family and warned Manos not to cross him, according to the lawsuit.
“I knew it wasn’t a safe situation, but I knew it was too late to get out then. He was already tracking me,” Manos said, referring to digital and in-person tracking. “He said he would never hurt me, but he would always go after the ones that I loved.”
Over the course of their relationship, Manos alleges theman repeatedly threatened her life and the lives of her parents. She claims he tortured and killed her two dogs, Kirby, a 6-year-old Bichon Mix, and Daisy, a 13-month-old Bichon Mix, according to the lawsuit.
“I started to disassociate a little bit, where you do what you have to to survive,” Manos said. “You look at this and you’re like, this cannot be happening. This cannot be reality. This isn’t real. This isn’t me.”
The man denied the allegations to USA TODAY. While police in Midlothian and Arlington Heights, Illinois, investigated Manos’ case and concluded animal abuse was the cause of the dogs’ deaths, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office found the evidence against the man insufficient to meet the burden of proof to file animal cruelty charges. The office told USA TODAY they worked with Manos to secure a conviction against the man after he violated Manos’ order of protection.
Manos’ civil suit accuses the man of violating the Illinois Humane Care for Animals Act and seeks monetary compensation for “severe emotional distress, among other injuries.” Manos said she filed the suit because she wanted the man to be held accountableand to “bring awareness to the situation.”
“I knew the system had failed me and that I needed to get justice for myself,” Manos said. “It’s not about the money. It’s the principle. I matter, and my dogs matter.”
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Abusers targeting pets is “unfortunately not at all unusual,” said Phil Arkow, coordinator of the National Link Coalition, which works to build greater awareness of how forms of violence are interconnected.
Animal abuse and other forms of family and community violence – such as child and elder abuse – have long been tied to domestic violence, he said.
“Domestic violence is about power and control, so animals and things a survivor cares about become a target for the abuse because it’s a way to hurt the person, and it’s also a way to control them,” said Neha Gill, executive director of Apna Ghar, a Chicago-based human rights organization working to end gender violence.
During times of crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic, the bond between humans and animals intensifies, and abusers will exploit that bond to control a victim’s behavior, to intimidate the victim and to inflict trauma on the victim, Arkow said.
About 71% of pet owners entering women’s shelters reported that their batterer had injured or threatened family pets to coerce, control and intimidate them, a 1997 survey found. What’s more, about 25% of survivors said they delayed the decision to go to a shelter due to concerns for their pet’s safety, a 2002 survey found.
That’s part of why there’s a growing movement among shelters to find ways to work with survivors who have pets, Arkow said. More than 250 domestic violence shelters in 46 states accept pets, and hundreds more work with a program in their community to provide foster care for pets, he said.
It’s also important to know that animals can be explicitly included in protective orders in 35 states. And in 2018, the U.S. passed the Pet and Women Safety “PAWS” Act, which allows those pet protective orders to be enforced across state lines.
“That may be a reason (survivors) feel like they can’t leave – because they don’t have somewhere to go with their animal,” said Gill, whose agency also operates a shelter. “But still make the call. Still ask because there are options.”
‘The community has been giving me hope’
Manos said it was frightening but “empowering” planning out her escape. She said she initially planned to get a letter to her mother by dropping it off on a shelf at the grocery store, but she eventually scrapped that plan and fled to her parents’ house at the end of June, after the man allegedly killed her second dog.
“I knew I would be escaping when the time was safe to escape, so it gave me the power to fight to survive,”Manos said. “I brought my bags. I said goodbye to my apartment. I sat my parents down in the living room. I FaceTimed my sisters, and I told them everything.”
Manos said she also spent two hours on the phone that day with an advocate from the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The following day, she filed for and received an emergency order of protection, and she and her family left town, according to the lawsuit.
“Going through this and recovering from it is a roller coaster,” Manos said. “Right now I’m doing OK, but I do have PTSD from this. This is a lot for any one person to deal with.”
Manos said she has moved to a new home, has continued to go to work and has been working with a trauma-specialized therapist.
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Looking back, her mother, Kate, said she and her husband didn’t initially recognize the warning signs of domestic abuse.
“Sarah was a different person during that time. She was very tense, very secretive,” Kate Manos said. “She’s been in other relationships, and this one was different. We had not had experience with abusive relationships, so I guess we were not putting two and two together.”
There are many signs of domestic abuse, and they look different for each situation, said Glenn, of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Many abusers try to isolate their victim, so family, friends and colleagues may begin to notice the person is not as accessible as they used to be. Animal abuse is a “true indication” that the violence is beginning to escalate, she said.
“If there is anything unusual about someone’s behavior and you know there may be something go on, you may want to subtly and carefully say, ‘I know that something is going on for you, I’m here to talk or if you need help,'” Glenn said. “We should not ask them to talk about it until they’re ready to talk about it, and we should not ask them to leave unless they’re ready.”
Manos said people in her neighborhood have been “in complete shock” from hearing her story, especially “to hear that this happened in our own backyards.” She said many people have reached out to her to thank her for sharing her story.
“The community has been giving me hope, and the drive to share my story with others has been empowering,” she said. “You’re not alone. I know it feels like you are. You feel like there’s no way out. But there is. You are strong, and you are surviving, and we’re here to help you.”
Domestic violence resources
If you are a victim of domestic violence, The National Domestic Violence Hotline allows you to speak confidentially with trained advocates online or by the phone, which they recommend for those who think their online activity is being monitored by their abuser (800-799-7233). They can help survivors develop a plan to achieve safety.
Safe Horizon’s hotline offers crisis counseling, safety planning, and assistance finding shelters 1-800-621-HOPE (4673). It also has a chat feature where you can reach out for help from a computer or phone confidentially.
Survivors can call the New York City Anti-Violence Project’s 24/7 English/Spanish hotline at 212-714-1141 and get support. If calling is not safe but email is possible, make a report at avp.org/get-help and leave safe contact information, and someone will reach out.
Find a list of pet-friendly shelters at Sheltering Animals & Families Together, Safe Place For Pets, DomesticShelters.org and the Animal Welfare Institute.