JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Theirs was supposed to be the kind of family people dream of having; a father, mother, son and daughter living in domestic harmony. Instead it became a nightmare.
Jennifer (not her real name) traces the disintegration of her marriage back to a single event many years before she filed for divorce. In the early 2000s, her now-ex-husband was prescribed opiates for back pain caused by his job as an HVAC technician. This set into motion a series of events that would lead to Jennifer’s fleeing for her life.
As his addiction escalated over the ensuing years, so did abuse. Jennifer was a stay-at-home mother in Jacksonville, isolated and controlled by her abuser. In spite of it all, she was determined to keep her family together. Anything short of that seemed like failure.
In 2015, a conversation with her teenage daughter changed everything.
“My daughter notified me that she had taken one of her dad’s guns and put it in her mouth,” Jennifer said.
“That was it.”
The next day, she and the kids made arrangements to move out.
But the hard times weren’t over — far from it. When her husband found out they were leaving, he exploded, threatening to kill them all in a phone call that Jennifer and her daughter anticipatorily recorded. Thanks to that recording, today Jennifer has a permanent injunction against her ex, who’s fully out of their lives and has served jail time for abusing her.
Yet five years later, the ripple effects continue. Her daughter, now 19, has struggled with addiction. Both she and Jennifer’s son, 18, are behind in their education. Like many survivors, at times Jennifer struggles with guilt and shame — thoughts she calls “the abuser that doesn’t leave.”
“Looking back at it, it makes me feel so stupid for having ever allowed things to get this bad,” she said. “I was really under the delusion of trying to be enough to keep the family together.”
Much like Jennifer’s ex-husband’s first opiate prescription, the coronavirus pandemic is triggering an avalanche of effects that will be felt for a long time to come.
In addition to the immediate public health impact, experts are predicting the economic downturn will correspond with increases in suicide and domestic violence, as occurred during the Great Recession, at the same time as record-breaking numbers of people are lining up to buy guns. What can be done to prevent more gun deaths and violence?
[If you or someone you know are experiencing domestic violence, call or text Hubbard House’s 24-hour hotline at 904-354-3114 to get help. Outside the Jacksonville area, call 1-800-500-1119. If you’re in immediate danger, call 911.]
A deadly combination
Mental health care providers have cause for concern over the rush to buy firearms and ammunition. The pandemic is already having a negative effect on mental health; they worry that ready access to weapons will elevate suicides.
Many are unaware that more people die by suicide than murder every year. In 2018, Jacksonville was the murder capital of Florida with 126 murders. That year, there were 164 suicides in the city, the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) reported.
The suicide rate has risen nationally over the last two decades. Jacksonville’s suicide rate was 12.3 per capita in 1999; in 2018, it was 16.9, per FDOH.
Access to firearms increases suicide risk. According to the Bloomberg American Health Initiative, firearms account for fewer than 10% of suicide attempts, but more than half of all suicide deaths — it’s hard to survive a gunshot.
In Jennifer’s case, having a firearm in the house could have had deadly consequences for her family. While her daughter didn’t pull the trigger, others will.
Dr. Colleen Bell, medical director of integrated health at Sulzbacher in Jacksonville, said she’s already seeing an influx of anxiety, insomnia and depression. She expects mental health issues to escalate.
“There’s a lot of people who are on the edge of stability who are going to get pushed over,” she said. “… Stress can tip people into an episode.”
University of North Florida sociology Professor Richard Phillips said it’s common knowledge in his field of study that economic dislocations cause suicides. “I am very worried about the nation’s collective psychology right now,” he said. “… the most vulnerable in society are the hardest hit.”
In nearby St. Augustine Beach, suicide calls have risen dramatically amid the pandemic. Police Chief Robert Hardwick said that last month, police in the county were called for 63 suicide threats or attempts, a roughly 25% increase over last March.
He said it could be coincidental, but anticipates that suicide calls will remain high as the virus disrupts life.
“I keep watching these unemployment rates,” he said.
The chief wants people to know that officers are there to help.
“We want them to contact us; we want to get them the proper services,” he said. “We’re trying to get ahead of this and help people.”
United Way Northeast Florida, which runs the suicide hotline in Jacksonville, said they didn’t experience an increase in calls in March. Bell is among those who believes that will change.
“I’m very worried about the suicide rate increasing and I’m expecting it to increase,” she said.
On the other hand, the coronavirus may lead to people and organizations working together toward a common goal of minimizing suffering and improving the lives of all, including those experiencing mental health issues, Bell said.
“With any crisis there’s always silver linings, and maybe one of the silver linings [is that] we’ll work together,” she said.
[If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 211 for help, or visit the United Way website here.]
Trapped with their abuser
Domestic violence advocates also observed the spike in firearms purchases with alarm. For people in a domestic violence situation, stay-at-home orders may make them safer from the disease, but at greater risk of harm. Having a firearm significantly increases the risk; Everytown for Gun Safety reports that “abusers with firearms are five times more likely to kill their victims.”
“When you think about firearms and domestic violence, that is a combination that never ends well,” said Gail Patin, CEO of Hubbard House, a Jacksonville shelter for people experiencing domestic violence.
The stress that the pandemic is causing personally and financially will only elevate the risk. Jennifer’s husband used her relative isolation and financial dependence as a stay-at-home mother to control and torment her.
“Victims in isolation are subject to brutalization due to the correlating trend of increased violence during high stress times,” Jennifer said, “particularly in regards to financial stress.”
Local police are now reporting a 20% increase in domestic violence calls for service.
Globally, some cities have reported as much as a 40% increase in domestic violence calls immediately after lockdown began. Patin said that they’re alarmed by a converse trend. From February to March, Hubbard House received 21% fewer calls.
That doesn’t mean the violence isn’t happening or escalating, however; in all likelihood it’s just the opposite. Being stuck at home means victims don’t have the opportunity to call for help or try to escape, Patin said. They have already begun hearing stories of abusers using pandemic-specific methods of torture, such as forcing the victim to wash their hands until they bleed, or having gloves or masks withheld, she said.
“It really is a living nightmare for people trapped in those homes,” she said.
Jennifer’s lack of resources made it more difficult for her to leave her abuser. Relocation funds she received from Hubbard House helped save her from the situation.
Her experience has given Jennifer insight into reforms that could help others like herself. She believes relocation expenses should be paid by court order, and charged to the abuser. She also thinks victims should know the outcome of their case before they leave court.
Patin said Hubbard House anticipates a wave of people calling for help after the period of isolation ends. Meanwhile, the public should know that Hubbard House is open.
“We are a phone call away and if they can call safely, and that’s the key, safely, without the abuser knowing and we’ll help walk them through their options …” Patin said. “If they’re in immediate danger, they need to call 911 and get help.”
She also suggested that people who know of or suspect domestic violence find safe ways to let victims know help is out there, such as by posting articles with resources’ contact information on their own social media accounts.
A Gateway to More Violence?
Jacksonville is a bloody city. Gun violence is persistent in some parts of the sprawling, geographically segregated metropolis that’s typically the murder capital of Florida. Here shootings tend to happen in areas that are both economically distressed and majority African American.
Michael Sampson II, a community organizer with the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, sees the violence as a predictable side effect of decades of the city’s economic neglect of predominantly black neighborhoods.
“A lot of folks in the poor area like I grew up in, they just need opportunity,” he said.
Economic opportunity is a key indicator of crime. Sampson points out that without jobs, people get desperate; desperation makes people do whatever they can to survive, criminal or not.
Criminologists predicted crime would increase during the Great Recession of 2007-09. The opposite happened. Thus, the economic downturn caused by the novel coronavirus may not lead to more crime. Meanwhile, some cities are reporting significant reductions in crime for the month of March.
Jacksonville, however, has long been something of an outlier. Even as others cities’ murder rates fell in recent decades, here it remained stubbornly high.
Last month, as people began social distancing and stay-at-home orders were issued, homicides increased in Jacksonville. TheFlorida Times-Union reported that the 17 homicides made it the deadliest March in 15 years.
The local prosecutor’s office was frustrated by March’s bloodshed. State Attorney Melissa Nelson told the newspaper in a statement, “The recent trend of violence is particularly troubling given the current challenges we face as a city, state, and nation. We are incensed that our already compromised first responders, law enforcement, and emergency medical providers have to triage the COVID-19 pandemic while responding to crime scenes involving unnecessary violence.”
The killings, the vast majority by firearm, show no signs of alleviating. On April 6, the city was rocked by the shooting death of a 5-year-old caught in the crossfire of a dispute over $180.
“It would be naive to think simply because the mayor has issued a shelter-in-place order that violence will stop,” Sampson said. “The same type of conditions that will give way to intercommunity violence are still there, and in fact have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.”
Sampson is among those who believe that Jacksonville needs to invest significantly over a period of years in improving economic conditions in areas hardest hit by the violence and crime. In the short term, he says it should fund organizations that help out in these communities.
“There are things the city can do during this pandemic to make sure the crime rate doesn’t keep going up,” he said.
Sampson hopes that Jacksonville alters the extent to which it prioritizes law enforcement over community development to reduce crime and violence.
He also hopes that local police continue arresting fewer people for low-level offenses as it’s been doing to keep the jail population down during the pandemic, and dedicates itself more fully to developing community trust. These actions, he believes, will contribute to a long-term decline in crime, including murder.
Even in a city this aware of the tragic impact of gun violence, Jacksonville residents reacted to the pandemic — like others across the nation — by buying huge numbers of guns and ammo.
In mid-March, WJXT reported a dramatic run on firearms and ammunition. Local stores’ supplies were quickly exhausted in the rush to buy.
“It’s panic. Buying guns and ammo is panic,” said Phillips, the sociologist.
The FBI reported that March shattered the previous monthly background check total by 12%. Of the 3.7 million total background checks, which are seen as the best indicator of firearm sales, an estimated 2.4 million were for gun purchasers.
Florida, though already heavily armed, was no different. From March 12 to 22, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) processed nearly three times as many background checks — 87,641 — as it did in the same time period last year. FDLE doesn’t maintain these records by county.
Sampson, a concealed weapons permit holder, was among those trying to stock up. He views the purchases as driven by legitimate concern for personal safety.
“I want people who feel like they’re at threat due to their marginalized identity to feel that sense of protection,” he said.
Jennifer’s life didn’t change overnight when she finally broke free from her abuser. Her ex wormed his way back into their lives, promising he’d changed. He hadn’t. The subsequent violent assault was the final straw — she called the police. He was later convicted of battery.
She says she and her kids are still healing.
“The debris of our emotional bombs had settled and the ruins of who each of us were — well, were now visible,” she said.
Jennifer says although some challenges remain, for the first time, she’s stable, self-sufficient, safe and independent. She is a success in progress.
This is the first in a Northeast Florida-focused series collaboration between WJCT and the Center for Sustainable Journalism, which publishes Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. JaxLookOut is a funding partner. This series is part of the Center’s national project on gun violence. Support is provided by The Kendeda Fund. The Center is solely responsible for the content and maintains editorial independence.