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Be aware of domestic violence around the holidays

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Domestic violence does not take a break for the holidays, and strained families who gather together should be aware of its warning signs and the resources available to help them.

Many victims in a situation of domestic violence try to stick it out during the holidays.

“We typically see a decrease in the number of calls over the holidays. Our agency sees an increase of these calls and an increase of people coming into our shelter after the New Year,” Chelsea Scott, administrative compliance coordinator for the Tri-County Help Center, said.

The center serves Belmont, Harrison and Monroe counties.

“We know domestic violence never takes a break for the holidays. The reality is abuse is never dormant. Yes, domestic violence is more likely to occur when stress levels are high. The holidays tend to be a stressful time of the year, and unfortunately stress can be a trigger for domestic violence among vulnerable families,” Scott said.

“We typically hear families say they try harder to stay together for the holidays,” she said. “There may be reasons people don’t want to remove their children from the home or leave the home altogether to disrupt the holidays.”

In making the decision to leave a situation of domestic violence, Scott added every family is unique.

“It is taken case-by-case, and we also know the harsh reality that a victim is at their most dangerous time when they leave their abuser. Their risk of homicide related to intimate partner violence increases at the time a victim leaves their abuser. There are more contributing factors to telling a victim to leave their abuse, leave their violent home, than it is for a victim to easily leave their abuser. We understand that a victim knows best. Our advocates are trained to support the victim with whatever need that they have. If they believe they are safest in the home, we’re going to develop safety plans with them to make them the safest they can be in the current environment that they’re choosing,” she said.

“Maybe the stresses of the holidays and the stresses of their relationships and the stresses of their home environment just culminates and comes to a head. Maybe they’ve made it through the holidays and maybe that was a goal that someone had, to at least get through the holidays,” she said. “That lack of hope is when some people come forward.”

Locally, Scott said mental health issues are among the top contributors to domestic violence. She said the pandemic has served to increase and exacerbate depression and anxiety.

“When the pandemic first started, we were overwhelmed with calls on our hotline. Our shelter was full. We were reaching out to other shelters to help house some of our families. When the stay-at-home order started in the early stages of the pandemic, we saw a decrease in the number of our hotline calls. We attributed that to abusers are also having to stay at home,” she said.

“Abusers use tactics of power and control against their victims. Increased stress levels can result in more instances of domestic violence,” she said. “We’ve recently seen a lot of victims come to us with mental health issues themselves, and with substance abuse disorders. We understand the dynamics of violence and sometimes substance abuse can be a factor as a coping mechanism for individuals experiencing violence, or it could be a tactic of power and control the abuser is using against the victim to get them addicted to those drugs so that they don’t leave their abuser.”

Scott said the center deals with cases of physical and mental abuse, and economic abuse such as controlling finances. Domestic violence appears in opposite and same-sex partner relationships, marital and extramarital relationships, and victims can be male or female.

“We probably see more domestic violence abuse through the psychological abuse that a victim experiences,” she said.

She said friends and bystanders have a role in detecting domestic violence and being a source of support.

“It’s important to keep an open mind. Domestic violence is not just the stereotypical black eye on a woman,” Scott said.

Chief Deputy James Zusack of the Belmont County Sheriff’s Office said law enforcement officers are ready to respond to an incident.

“They do tend to increase just a little bit during the holidays because you’ve got all the family members together,” Zusack said. “If a domestic happens, they should call law enforcement. Domestics are serious. They can turn out bad. So we always encourage people to call. … We take them very seriously.”

The same is true of smaller, municipal departments.

“Statistically, not just us but every agency around will see an uptick in domestic violence-related family disputes,” Barnesville Police Chief Rocky Sirianni said. “The whole family gathers together, which is great, but then sometimes people get to drinking maybe too much and have a disagreement about something, and instead of removing themselves from that situation, sometimes they’ll just escalate that argument, and a lot of times it does result in some kind of family dispute or domestic violence. … Don’t drink too much if you’re going to be around people you can’t get along with or have a tendency to have arguments with, and if you do get into an argument and something seems like it’s starting to escalate, just do your best to remove yourself from that situation or call the police.”

He added that factors such as drugs, alcohol or mental health issues might exacerbate a strained gathering.

Scott advises friends who suspect domestic violence is taking place to remain non-judgemental and try to have a calm conversation in a supportive way to build and maintain trust and not to blame the victim. They may also share information about her agency and its 24-hour hotline at 740-695-5441. She said callers can remain anonymous.

The center is located at 104½ N. Market St. in St. Clairsville.

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