County officials discuss domestic abuse levels dye ot COVID-19 shelter-in-place order Tuesday.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, left, County District Attorney Joyce Dudley and Fire Chief Mark Hartwig say domestic abuse levels have likely risen, but are underreported.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

People are experiencing increased levels of in-home abuse, such as domestic violence, spousal rape, child and elder abuse, as well as animal abuse, and these crimes are being grossly underreported in Santa Barbara County as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, county District Attorney Joyce Dudley said Tuesday.

Restrictions forcing people to spend more time in close quarters and social distancing measures related to the novel coronavirus are putting some — including children, elderly, those in relationships and animals — at risk of being trapped indoors with their suspected abusers.

Dudley, county Sheriff Bill Brown and county Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said Tuesday that law enforcement agencies have made responding to in-home abuse calls their highest priority.

“They want you to call them,” she said. “They want to make sure you understand that is what 911 is for. They will be kind and they will be professional.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his March 19 shelter-at-home order in an effort to combat the spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus.

The number of abuse calls in the county increased about 21 percent in the first week of the order, but has dropped since, Dudley said.

“The second week there was a drop, and a drop, and a drop,” she said. “The only reason it’s dropping is because people aren’t reporting it, and the reason why people aren’t reporting it is because they are at home — terrified.

“The fact that we are seeing fewer calls — for domestic violence, child abuse, child sexual abuse, elder abuse and animal abuse — only makes us more alarmed,” she added.

Dudley emphasized the significance of joining together as a community to protect people who feel unsafe.

Family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, strangers and others must pay attention and report any concerns to their local law enforcement agency, Dudley said.

It is important to realize that pharmacists, grocery store staff, mail deliverers and gas station attendants could be someone’s only chance of avoiding continuous abuse, Dudley said.

She encouraged witnesses or victims to call 911. 

In situations where people cannot call law enforcement, contact the county District Attorney’s Office Victim-Witness Assistance Program at 805.568.2400.

“You have to make it stop,” Dudley said. “It won’t stop on its own.”

“Relationship abuse is unacceptable in any form, and we must all do our part to be aware of and stop abuse that’s hidden inside the home,” Brown said.

He urged people to “be willing to make a phone call for someone who is afraid to call.”

His message was clear: “If you see or hear something, say something. Say something by calling law enforcement.”

Click here for Noozhawk’s Coronavirus Crisis section

Click here for the Public Health Department’s COVID-19 information page

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.