KEARNEY — “Safe at home” applies to baseball, but not to those living with an abusive partner during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abusers often take advantage of stressful situations to gain more control, said Nikki Gausman, executive director of the S.A.F.E. Center in Kearney.

“While we are all dealing with the unknown right now, living with a partner who is abusive emotionally, sexually or physically can be terrifying,” Gausman said. “It can be even scarier to think about starting a new life.”

Gausman spoke during Saturday’s HealthyMINDS virtual Facebook presentation on sustaining healthy relationships, presented by Buffalo County Community Partners. She said abusive partners may be doing the following right now:

- Isolation. Perpetrators use isolation to control victims. It is exacerbated under self-isolation and quarantine. Many victims cannot use the phone or computer to reach out for help.

- Abusive partners may withhold insurance cards, threaten to cancel insurance or prevent survivors from seeking medical attention.

- Victims of domestic violence experience financial abuse, which is exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic because they may lose their jobs or be unable to find work.

- Perpetrators often increase their abusive behavior because they think victims cannot leave. Survivors can be dependent on an abusive partner for housing and support and other basic needs. They may not believe that they can make it on their own.

“This violence is a pattern of behaviors. Someone who has not been abusive does not suddenly become violent and controlling because they have lost a job or are under stay-at-home orders,” Gausman said.

“It’s so important to remember that we are stressed right now, and things are constantly changing. How we react or respond in our families and to others makes a huge difference.”

Those who are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault must make decisions about how to survive and do the best thing for themselves and their families, she added.

Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive and assaultive behaviors used to establish and maintain power over a current or former intimate partner. It often begins when a couple starts dating, she said.

The S.A.F.E. Center assists people who live in fear. That includes fear of their partner, fear of what might happen if they remain in that relationship, fear of what might happen if they leave or fear of dealing with the unknown, Gausman said.

She urged friends to be supportive in a helpful, respectful way.

“We may be disappointed in the outcome, like when an alleged perpetrator doesn’t go to jail or a victim doesn’t leave the situation, but we still can create a community and environment that doesn’t tolerate abuse and supports survivors,” Gausman said.

“We can be an example of a loving, kind person that does the right thing. We can be a role model for others and children in our community. We can all be more for others, and it starts with taking care of ourselves,” she said.

For friends and community members, she recommended:

- Remember that the victim does not cause domestic violence and sexual assault. Consider all the reasons a victim might not leave or report a situation.

- Distract or delegate: Ask if the victim needs a safe number to call, and explain that there are people who can help.

- Call law enforcement if someone is being abusive or if you see someone getting hurt online or in person. Survivors hesitate to call police on someone they know and love. They may have had bad previous experiences, or they may fear that involving law enforcement will make their partner more angry.

Founded nearly 42 years ago, the S.A.F.E. Center shelters and aids individuals and families who are fleeing violent situations in Buffalo, Franklin, Harlan, Kearney and Phelps counties. In 2018, it received 1,300 calls and assisted 500 people.

Throughout the pandemic, it has been working with the Buffalo County Emergency Housing Task Force to make sure people have safe places to live. The task force, powered by BCCP, works to make sure that no one in the community is homeless.

It may assist individuals in completing housing applications so they may move directly into their own housing without going to a shelter; or help them plan for safety and where they can go if the situation becomes unsafe.

Gausman said many resources exist for survivors who need help at any hour of the day or night, especially during COVID-19.

“This violence is a pattern of behaviors. Someone who has not been abusive does not suddenly become violent and controlling because they have lost a job or are under stay-at-home orders,” she said.

“I would encourage people to call if it is safe for them to do so. Our advocates can talk to them about options for their safety. Call the national crisis lines if that is a more comfortable option,” she said.

maryjane.skala@kearneyhub.com