When the new coronavirus initially hit Colorado in early March, many flocked to grocery stores and cleared shelves, preparing for the potential of hunkering down in their homes.
But for Jeara and her four young children, those first days of the virus looked a little different.
They were settling into their new normal at a domestic violence shelter in Northern Colorado.
Jeara said she and her children — ages 11, 10, 8 and 4 — ended up at the shelter March 12 after an incident involving her husband days earlier.
In order to protect their safety, USA TODAY is not using her full name or her children's names or identifying the shelter in this story.
In court documents requesting a civil restraining order, Jeara said on March 5, her husband ripped a necklace off her neck, shoved her, ripped her glasses off her face and blocked her exit while being verbally abusive to their son.
Jeara packed a bag with a gaming system and a few other things for her children and persuaded her husband to stop blocking the door, saying she had to get them off to school. In reality, their school didn’t start for two more hours.
“Twelve and a half years and it’s just unbelievable,” Jeara said. “Haven’t looked back.”
For most other Coloradans, the news of the day on March 5 was the first confirmed coronavirus cases in the state. By the time Jeara and her children moved into the domestic violence shelter seven days later, the state had 49 confirmed cases, events were being canceled and Denver schools were already planning to transition to remote learning.
Jeara was able to go back to get more of her kids' clothes, though she said she had to throw most of her clothes away because they didn’t fit in her car.
“But I got the kids' clothes and, you know, the stuff that was important to them,” she said. “And my kids. I got my kids.”
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A pandemic in a domestic violence shelter
At the shelter, Jeara and her four children share one room and have access to a community living area and kitchen. Before this, the family would stay in hotels, so they’re used to being packed together to some degree.
“We’re kind of used to being on top of each other, but we’re used to having the freedom to go out, burn the energy off, play at the park and playgrounds,” she said. “Without that, it’s been a struggle.”
The coronavirus wasn’t really a problem when they first arrived, but Jeara said the situation started to get noticeably worse within the first week.
“I kind of watched my school system shut down, and then the extra precautions were put in place at the shelter,” Jeara said.
Shelter staff started asking residents to not go out unless it was necessary and to limit exposure to other people. In late April, Jeara said they were under a curfew to return back to the shelter by 9 p.m. every day.
The staff at the shelter are wearing masks, staying home when they feel sick and sanitizing high-touch areas like handles, doorknobs and counters multiple times per day, Jeara said.
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“I couldn’t imagine if I got sick and ended up in the hospital where my kids would go, or if my kids got sick and ended up in the hospital what I would do,” Jeara said.
In-person staff has also been limited, per state public health orders to make sure social distancing guidelines can be followed. Enough fabric masks were donated to the facility to give each resident two to wear when out in public.
“They try not to limit our freedom too much, but to make sure everybody’s safe, they’ve had to put some limitations,” Jeara said. “Which is good, I need to feel like I have some control.”
Not everyone is 'safer at home'
The coronavirus outbreak has not stopped the domestic violence shelters and resource centers operating in Northern Colorado from offering help.
Crossroads Safehouse has seen calls to their 24/7 crisis line double in the past two weeks, executive director Lisa Poppaw said. They've also seen their lethality cases — cases where there was an attempt on a victim's life or their life is in jeopardy — jump from five or six annually to 18 in the past five weeks.
"My biggest concern is access to services and the inability to access services," Poppaw said. "It's quite obvious this is having a huge impact on victims and their families."
Alternatives to Violence director Kari Clark said they’ve seen the opposite — calls to their crisis line dipped by 20% in March. The number of calls in April was about the same as March, but down 40% from the number of crisis line calls in April 2019.
Clark suspects the decrease comes from victims being trapped with their abusers and not having the ability to safely reach out for help, or they don’t feel comfortable going out in public to ask for help because of the virus.
“For many people, they are not safer at home. It is more dangerous of a situation,” Clark said.
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Clark said Alternatives to Violence has had two lethality cases, and they were able to shelter those people at hotels because their shelter is currently full.
On average, Alternatives to Violence receives about 90 to 100 calls to their crisis line per week and their shelter can house about 22 people in eight rooms at one time. Poppaw said Crossroads has 26 rooms and on average receives 200 to 250 calls to their crisis line per month.
Being asked to shelter in place can put extra pressure on already volatile situations, Poppaw said. Add potential unemployment, financial pressures and stress of being around people constantly, and it can become an increasingly dangerous situation for many.
Isolation is often used by abusers to maintain power and control, and abusers may be manipulating public health policies like isolation and physical distancing to prevent survivors from seeking help, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services. Financial dependence is another tool often manipulated by abusers, making some especially vulnerable during this uncertain economic time.
“This is the prime condition for abusers right now,” Clark said.
Poppaw and Clark both said they are preparing for a surge in calls and a need for their resources when the coronavirus pandemic settles and more people are able to safely reach out for help. Clark said anticipated increases in requests for shelter are concerning because Colorado already has a high turn-away rate.
In the meantime, Clark said to be mindful of your friends and family who might be living in an unsafe situation. Try to make contact through video calls or by dropping groceries off and safely seeing each other through the door.
“Let them know you’re there no matter what,” Clark said.
Poppaw said people who are able to reach out safely can and should do so, and resources remain available for survivors during this pandemic response.
“Do what you need to to stay safe, and when the opportunity arises, please reach out to us," Poppaw said. "We’re here 24/7 every single day, and we’re here to help you."
Remote learning: lessons in self-love
When Jeara and her family arrived at their shelter, the children were on their regularly scheduled spring break. Not long after, the school district announced that the school year would finish remotely.
Home-schooling her four children from the shelter has been fun, challenging and rewarding, Jeara said. One of her sons understands and can pretty easily complete his work; he just hates doing it. Her youngest daughter is still in preschool, so just giving her a workbook and letting her trace out letters has been doable.
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Her other daughter — who excels in math and loves it so much Jeara said she sometimes spends time writing out her own math problems to solve — struggles in most other subject areas and utilizes additional resources at her school. The school gave them extra work packets to help guide Jeara in assisting with the extra work. The family was also given access to laptops.
At the beginning, the only internet the kids had was the hotspot on Jeara’s phone — the shelter didn't have Wi-Fi for the residents. The phone company would let her increase her plan only once per billing cycle, and she quickly ran out of data.
When that happened, Jeara said she bought notebooks and was writing out math problems for her older kids and dotted letters for her youngest daughter to trace. When she really needed internet access, she’d park outside a Starbucks or another place with Wi-Fi and connect.
Now the shelter has set up Wi-Fi for the residents who need it for school or work, and Jeara has unlimited data on her cellphone plan.
On Tuesdays, Jeara’s youngest daughter uses Jeara’s phone to video chat with her speech therapist. The rest of the kids have video calls with their teacher and classmates to talk about their schoolwork and goals.
“They want to be in school. …Tthey love it so much,” Jeara said.
Beyond schoolwork, Jeara found ways to educate and entertain her kids in the shelter. One day, she traced each child's silhouette on large pieces of paper and had them each write the things they loved about themselves. Then Jeara asked each child to say what they loved about each other so they could be added to their drawings.
“(We did that) to build that self-love in them so they can see the good aspects of themselves,” she said.
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Her sons especially struggle with self-esteem because of how their father treated them, Jeara said. While staying at the shelter, one of her sons woke up in the middle of the night to ask her if he was a mistake “because Daddy told me I was a mistake,” Jeara recalled.
Now that they are away from their father, Jeara said she can really see the effects of the abuse on her children.
“My girls, they’ll cry because ‘I love my daddy, I miss my daddy, but I’m scared of my daddy.’ That’s what both of them say,” Jeara said.
All of her kids loved going to school because it took their minds and attention off the issues at home. It’s been hard for them to focus while doing their schoolwork at their new temporary home because “their minds can go anywhere,” Jeara said.
“I know as an adult how I feel and how I struggle with everything that happened,” Jeara said. “I can’t even imagine being a child and really not understanding why things have been crazy.”
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'I'm not a victim; I'm a survivor'
Now that she and her children are out of the situation, Jeara said she’s had more time to process her own anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
“I used to be this independent, self-sufficient, scared-of-nothing, go-out-there-and-get-'em person,”Jeara said.
Being in a place where she knows she and the kids are safe has helped calm her anxiety, she said.
In early April, Jeara filed for a protection order against her husband after he left her a threatening voice message telling her that if she didn’t stop making him look like a bad dad, he would “come get me,” she said.
A permanent protection order was granted April 16. Her husband did not show up for the hearing, she said. Because the threats were made against her only and not the children, the judge granted the protection order only for Jeara, though she currently has custody of the children.
The protection order was granted in civil court proceedings and requires Jeara's husband to stay away from her. He has not been charged with a crime in connection with the March incident.
“I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor and so are my kids,” she said. “And surviving everything we did shows how strong all of us are.”
Now Jeara is working on what's next. At the shelter, she has a three-person advocacy team that she said has helped her find any resources she needs.
Jeara has also been approved for legal assistance and given counseling referrals, which she and all her children will need, she said.
“At the end of it all, I think I’m going to be better prepared to go out and find a job and go back to work,” Jeara said. “It’s like I’ve been put in a timeout, but it’s a good timeout.”
Beginning May 26, Jeara plans to start taking online classes through a community college for criminal justice and work toward becoming a probation officer.
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“I think I could be a good probation officer, and I think I’ve been through enough in life that not quite so many people could come in and pull the wool over my eyes,” Jeara said.
Next month she plans to file for divorce and push to make sure her husband can’t be involved in their kids’ lives. He currently has no visitation rights, Jeara said, and he has to wait a year before he can try to get custody because he moved out of state.
“I’m ready to move forward, I’m ready to be divorced and have my name back,” Jeara said.
Looking ahead to the eventual end of the pandemic and life going back to normal, moving out of the shelter is still a big concern. She has set up a GoFundMe page to help them get back on their feet after they leave the shelter.
“I’m scared to be in a place that’s not as secure as this. I think that’s my biggest fear,” Jeara said.
But in their short time there, Jeara said she’s seen her kids be kids again and she’s excited to continue to watch them grow.
“I’ve seen the light starting to come back in their eyes again,” Jeara said. “I’ve started seeing them playing and not being scared to play because they’re being too loud or whatever the case may be. … I absolutely love it.”
Domestic violence warning signs
Domestic violence is a pattern of abuse that can include physical, sexual, emotional, verbal and financial elements where the abuser's conscious or unconscious goal is to gain or maintain control. There are not always physical signs of abuse.
Girls and young women ages 16-24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence.
Early warning signs of an abusive partner include:Controlling behaviorGuilt tripsThreatsIntimidationIsolation JealousyName-callingManipulationExplosive temperMood swingsChecking your cellphone or email without permission
Help for people in crisis
If you or someone you care about is in a domestic violence situation, call Crossroads Safehouse's 24/7 helplines, which are staffed by trained advocates: 970-482-3502 or 888-541-7233 (toll free). You can also call Alternatives to Violence at 970-880-1000.
Other available resources for people in crisis include:National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or call 911.SummitStone Crisis Stabilization Unit, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: summitstonehealth.org/services/Poudre Valley Hospital and Medical Center of the Rockies crisis centers: uchealth.org/services/behavioral-health/
Follow Sady Swanson on Twitter: @sadyswan