May 31, 2023


Health Is a Human Right

When Staying Home Isn’t Safe: Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s podcast for May 21

You can listen on your favorite podcast app or read the transcript below.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: That was Katie Ray-Jones, the head of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

For most of us, staying at home has been the safest way to protect ourselves from the coronavirus.

But for others, home can be a dangerous place, worrying experts about what is happening behind closed doors.

So what do we really know? And what can we do to help those who may be isolated and afraid?

I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. And this is “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.”
In the past, we have seen increases in domestic violence during times of crisis and stress.

James Gagliano, CNN Law Enforcement Analyst: We’ve seen spikes in 2008 during the economic crisis.

Gupta: James Gagliano is a former FBI agent and CNN’s law enforcement analyst. He says this pandemic is putting victims in a particularly vulnerable situation.

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Gagliano: We’ve seen spikes during national disasters like, say, Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy. We’ve also seen it during times of the Super Bowl, major sporting events. And look, correlation doesn’t always equal causation here, but there is a lot of factors at play, and one of them is these victims are trapped in a co-habitation situation with the abuser.

Gupta: As stay-at-home orders went into effect in March, several cities across the United States reported a steep increase in domestic violence calls as compared to last year.

Cities like Seattle, Portland and Boston have all reported increases in calls to hotlines, or reports or arrests related to domestic violence. In April, Chicago city officials told CNN the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline saw the highest daily call volume in its 20-year history.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, calls to domestic abuse hotlines and reports to law enforcement have stayed flat or even declined. Experts worry that victims stuck at home with their abusers may not know how to get help.

One group that is working to assist victims of domestic violence is Safe Horizon. Based in New York City, they are one of the largest victim service organizations in the country.

Ariel Zwang CEO, Safe Horizon: We work with victims of all crime and abuse, and that includes family violence, domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, human trafficking, elder abuse. And we help people to heal and rebuild their lives.

Gupta: Ariel Zwang is the CEO of Safe Horizon.

I started by asking her what she had been hearing from people who need help during this pandemic.

Zwang: So when nobody’s supposed to be out and about, the choice to leave a situation or leave home is definitely complicated by concerns about getting the virus. Others can include, let’s say the victim is someone that had not been economically dependent on the abuser, but now they’ve lost their job. So maybe that’s an economic dependence that has now begun.

Gupta: Are there particular signs of an abusive situation?

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Zwang: If that person doesn’t seem to have the freedom to go where and when they want. Seems to have to account for every dollar or every place they go. Seems to be separated from loving relationships that used to be important to them.

In the relationship, you may experience all of those things and also threats. And then, of course, every form of physical violence that people experience. But if someone is hurting you, physically, choking you, spitting on you, you absolutely have a right to seek help and to not expect that that behavior is normal.

Gupta: I imagine that the problem has worsened during this pandemic of both intimate partner violence, child abuse. But I wonder, do you know for sure? I mean, just because the reporting of this, I imagine, is part of the challenge as well, right?

Zwang: The story on reporting is complicated. In the first month of the stay-at-home orders here in New York, calls to our hotline were down. That’s for a couple of reasons. One, people just prioritizing their, their health.

But another is an assumption that help wasn’t available. And that is tragic because help is available. Our hotline is functioning. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is functioning. Police are responding to calls. We’re able to provide a tremendous range of services, virtually.

And as the word has gotten out about that, our calls have increased.

Child abuse is a different matter because those reports come from teachers who are mandated reporters and doctors. Those reports are down by 75 percent over the prior period. And that is heartbreaking and tragic because the abuse cannot be down by 75 percent. It means that teachers that would normally see something and be concerned about it are not able to see that over remote learning.

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Gupta: Let me ask you, though, Ariel. Short of opening up, are there other things that can be done to address this issue specifically with child abuse?

Zwang: We’ve done research over the years about bystanders to child abuse. People who may suspect there’s something abusive happening in a family. And overwhelmingly, members of the public say, I wouldn’t want to report that because I might be wrong. What if I’m wrong and it’s really none of my business? And my response to that is, what if you’re not wrong? What if you’re right?

And so I would say if anyone listening to this podcast has a nagging suspicion that, that a child is not being treated right in their home, find out where in your state you can call it in.

Gupta: It just strikes me from a pragmatic sense that it might be challenging if you’re in an apartment, you know, with people and you’re trying to seek help, but you’re worried about stigma even within your own living situation or privacy concerns.

What do you recommend for someone who says, I want to get help, but you know frankly, I got someone listening in the next room, every time I try and get on the call or seek help?

Zwang: I recommend chat. It can be much more private. And there are many mental health services available over chat. A large part of what we do with victims of domestic violence is safety planning. What can that particular person do to be safer? With sheltering at home, that’s become much more complicated because safety plans often would include something like I can spend the night at my mother’s if I see certain signs of behavior that are worrisome. That sort of thing may not be an option now.

But options that can still work for this time might be a code word that your child knows, that if I say a certain word, the child should call 911. It might be something like a neighbor you know when I put the shade up in the bathroom or put a plant in the window, the neighbor knows that you’re in distress and to keep an ear out and to call the police.

Gupta: And as you pointed out, it’s about giving people help.

Zwang: Yes, first and foremost, if you imagine or think about what it might be like or what it must be like to be a child or to be an adult trapped in a situation where you feel fear every minute of the day. And you could help that person. Think of what that would mean.

Gupta: Victims of domestic abuse faced significant challenges even before the pandemic. But Ariel wants people to know that organizations like Safe Horizon can help, and they can do it discreetly.

Zwang: The Safe Horizon Hotline, 1-800-621-HOPE, is the front door for all of the services that we offer. That might include safety planning, things that you can do even at home. It might include resources for legal services, for mental health support, for counseling, for shelter, for an order of protection.

In addition, if calling is not a good option for you, I encourage you to visit our website and click on “SafeChat” and you can access all those same services but via chat.
Gupta: You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE, or go to their website,

Remember, if you do find yourself in an unsafe situation at home, it’s OK to ask for help.

If you suspect someone you know may be struggling, you can reach out on their behalf. Sometimes they’re not in a situation to do it themselves. We need to support each other to get through these difficult times.

We’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.

If you have questions, please record them as a voice memo and email them to ask[email protected] — we might even include them in our next podcast.

You can also head to and sign up for our daily newsletter, which features the latest updates on this fast-moving story from CNN journalists around the globe. For a full listing of episodes of “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction,” visit the podcast’s page here.

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