The Ms. Q&A: Alejandra Y. Castillo on Combating Domestic Violence During the COVID-19 Epidemic

As the U.S. fights to contain the spread of the coronavirus, vast numbers of people across the country are being told to stay home.

But experts warn this will lead to an increase of domestic abuse occurring within households.

“Across our network we are seeing a significant increase in demand for our services, including domestic and sexual violence services, shelter and transitional housing,” said Castillo. “This is what typically happens during national disasters and economic recessions—and it’s happening now.” (Pexels)

Ms. interviewed Alejandra Y. Castillo, CEO of the YWCA USA, the nation’s largest provider of sexual violence and domestic abuse services.

We spoke to Castillo about the impact this virus is having on households across the U.S.—as well as the ways that we can all help protect those who are most vulnerable to domestic abuse during this time of self-quarantining and self-isolation.


Micaela Brinsley: Has there been a noticeable rise in the number of domestic violence cases within the U.S. so far? Why now?

Alejandra Y. Castillo: YWCA USA is the largest network of domestic and sexual violence service providers—and across our network we are seeing a significant increase in demand for our services, including domestic and sexual violence services, shelter and transitional housing. This is what typically happens during national disasters and economic recessions—and it’s happening now. 

For example, the CEO of YWCA Pierce County, Washington, shared some of the struggles their organization is facing in keeping their shelter open and programs running:

“We need help because most businesses have shut down and schools are closed through the end of April, so family stressors are high and, as a result, domestic violence will increase at a time we are barely able to keep our doors open. We are the [domestic violence] agency for our community. We won’t make it without help.” 

One YWCA in a Western state (name withheld for safety and privacy of survivors) shared with us,

“We took two women to the hospital on Saturday to be tested for COVID-19. They tested negative and we took them back to the shelter after filling prescriptions. We immediately got called back to the ER to see a terribly-beaten woman that needs to come to our shelter to use the last available bed. The [doctor] said we then had six positively documented cases in Montana. We might be the last state with a positive test result, but we are seeing much more stress, crises and violence.”

We’re hearing stories like these from across our national network.

MB: What has been the biggest obstacle for women and partners attempting to report on their abusive partners? How is COVID-19 influencing access to care that would normally be available for people attempting to report on their abusive partners?

AYC: Survivors typically reach out for help by calling a local YWCA’s hotline and looking for resources and support online while their abusive partner is working.

As coronavirus puts thousands of people out of work, it’s also sending abusive partners back home, and taking away from the very limited opportunities that survivors have to access resources and their support network.

As more states impose shelter-in-place orders and if our YWCAs are forced to close our doors, survivors will have even fewer options. 

MB: What are the ways in which the federal government has assisted vulnerable people since the COVID-19 outbreak? What have they failed to address?

AYC: Federal lawmakers need to immediately pass an economic relief package that provides significant support for nonprofit human service organizations, so that we can continue to do our part in fighting this pandemic.

Demand for the services we provide—childcare, supportive housing for survivors of domestic violence, free meals and medical support for seniors—is increasing substantially.

As we confront this pandemic and prepare for a looming economic recession, our revenues are plummeting—we do not have the bandwidth to fundraise, and many individuals who generously support our work are facing financial uncertainty of their own. The federal government must assist vulnerable populations by supporting the nonprofits that serve them. 

MB: What are the most effective ways of ensuring that women can be protected during this time? What can the philanthropic sector, as well as US citizens do to help those who may not be able to access care at this time?

AYC: There are four important ways that all of us can ensure that women are protected at this time: 

1. If you are in an unsafe situation or know someone who may be in an unsafe situation, look for a YWCA in your area. And call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. You can also log onto thehotline.org—or text LOVEIS to 22522. You are not alone, and help is available.

2. Contribute to the YWCA Emergency Fund, which was established to support women in local communities. The funds go directly to keep our YWCA doors open and provide emergency housing, childcare, food and sanitizing supplies.

3. Provide in-kind donations to a local YWCA of essential items like grocery cards, cleaning and disinfecting supplies, and children’s feeding and hygiene supplies: milk, formula, baby food, snacks, baby wipes, diapers, paper towels.

3. Call your representatives and urge them to support a relief package for domestic violence providers and other nonprofit charitable organizations like YWCA so that we can keep the doors of our shelters and calls to our hotlines open—and meet the increased need that our local associations are seeing for our services.

MB: How has the YWCA been addressing this issue, and what are its plans moving forward as this virus continues to spread across the U.S.?

AYC: YWCA is on the ground in more than 1,000 communities across the country, and we’ve helped address coronavirus by providing emergency childcare for healthcare workers, housing survivors of domestic violence who can’t safely quarantine at home, and providing meals and medical care for seniors and other vulnerable groups. 

We will continue to serve our communities and the people who have the greatest need for as long as we are able. Throughout its history the YWCA has always been a safe place for women, and that need has never been greater than it is today. 

We are also actively working with Congress and our national partners to ensure that charitable nonprofits like YWCA can keep our doors open and services available. Community safety and resilience depends on us, and we will rise to the challenge.


The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.


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About

Micaela Brinsley is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a senior studying Performance Studies at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, she is a feminist theatre artist, activist and writer with a background in performance art and labor rights. Passionate about social justice, she is an avid conversationalist committed to making the world a more just place. You can contact her at mbrinsley [at] msmagazine.com.