Sickness is not the only risk posed by the novel coronavirus these days.

Most callers to Maine’s domestic violence hotlines are reporting that restrictions put in place in response to COVID-19 are having a direct impact on their safety, according to a recent survey.

“People who are living with domestic abuse are really facing much greater risk now with so many restrictions on what they can do and where they can go,” said Francine Stark, executive director of Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. Seventy percent of survivors quizzed by advocates said reaction to the pandemic has put them in greater jeopardy, Stark said.

Those restrictions, including Gov. Janet Mills’ statewide stay-at-home order mandate, “come from the larger importance of our attending to our greater public health, but put them in a particularly difficult situation,” Stark said, referring to domestic violence abuse victims.

Statistics may not reflect this increased risk of abuse, advocates for domestic violence victims said. The number of calls to dispatchers and arrests of abusers appear in some areas to be the same as before COVID-19 or have even dropped off. But those statistics are more likely a reflection of the restricted ability of many victims to reach out for help because they have fewer opportunities to do so or are more constrained now, advocates said.

Lewiston police Lt. David St. Pierre said his department’s dispatch logs showed more domestic calls and the same number of arrests in the 10 days leading up to the governor’s issuance of a stay-at-home order beginning this month than in the 10-day period after it went into effect.

By contrast, Auburn police have seen a rise in domestic calls since COVID-19 struck Maine, Deputy Chief Timothy Cougle said.

Dispatchers received 17 calls in March this year compared to 12 in the same month last year, he said, an increase of roughly 40%.

As of Monday, his department had gotten 11 calls so far, only two weeks into April.

Androscoggin County District Attorney Andrew Robinson Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Androscoggin County District Attorney Andrew Robinson said the number of complaints for misdemeanor domestic violence assaults filed by his office so far this year is down by more than 10% compared to the same period a year ago. The number of felony domestic violence assault cases prosecuted by his office is roughly the same as last year, he found after directing his office to analyze the data.

The number of misdemeanor domestic violence stalking and terrorizing cases are down this year compared to last year, he said. But the number of misdemeanor criminal threatening cases has more than doubled, according to the data.

A letter penned this week to all Maine law enforcement agencies from Robinson in his role as the head of the Maine Prosecutors Association, the Maine Department of Public Safety, Maine State Police, the Maine Sheriffs Association, the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, and Stark said health precautions shouldn’t outweigh the needs of victims of domestic abuse and violence.

“Our responsibility to public health needs has necessitated many changes in criminal justice policies and protocols over the last several weeks. Regardless, we remain committed to ensuring Maine’s criminal justice system effectively responds to the safety needs of victims,” the letter said.

In response to Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson’s plea last month for curtailed arrests in an effort to reduce jail populations in the coronavirus climate, area law enforcement agencies have issued more summonses for nonviolent crimes, but have continued to arrest those suspected of domestic violence. In fact, most arrests in Androscoggin County since mid-March have been for some form of domestic violence or violation of a protection from abuse order, Androscoggin County Jail records show.

State judges are continuing to issue temporary protection from abuse orders and courts are still holding hearings in those cases as well as protection from harassment orders.

The letter from Robinson and others to statewide law enforcement agencies said, “As our partners across the criminal justice system continue to develop response protocols, public safety must remain a paramount consideration, particularly in situations involving domestic abuse and violence.”

Elise Johansen, executive director of Safe Voices, in her Lewiston office. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Elise Johansen, executive director of Safe Voices, a Lewiston-based domestic violence prevention resource center, said there’s no proven method available to calculate accurately the incidence of domestic abuse and violence in a particular community because many victims never report them to law enforcement.

That may be truer now more than ever, she said.

Due to measures taken by companies in response to a drop in business or in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, many abusers may have been laid off or their hours have been reduced, their schedules shifted, or they’re now working from home, which allows an abuse victim less opportunity to seek assistance, Johansen said.

Or, conversely, the victim may be facing those same changes in circumstance, giving them less time to themselves and, for that reason, less opportunity to reach out for help.

“What we do know is that in some places, the call volume is down, which is really concerning,” Johansen said. “And what that says to us is that people are not having a safe place to be able to make a phone call to us.”

In addition to phone calls, victim hotlines now include a “chat” option, where those who are afraid to speak from home because they might be overheard may instead communicate with a hotline advocate using a more discreet format such as chat over a smartphone or the Safe Voices’ website, Johansen said.

Many of the other domestic violence resource centers in the state are rolling out similar kinds of services, Stark said.

Because of COVID-19, survivors may not be able to flee to a family member’s house, where they might have sought refuge in the past, because that family member is now self-isolating or in quarantine, Johansen said.

“I think that maybe some of the safety nets that were present even a month or two ago are just not there,” she said. “We know that many shelters around the state are at capacity, or are not taking in additional people because of social distancing.”

Under Mills’ order, hotels and motels shut down, but an important exception was made for domestic violence survivors, Stark noted.

“We’re grateful that the governor included a carve-out for people escaping domestic violence as folks who could still obtain hotel accommodations,” Stark said. “And organizations are working to find funding to support paying for people to have somewhat longer stays in hotels during a time of transition.”

Finding an apartment to move into on short notice would be difficult now when many landlords aren’t even holding showings, she said.

Despite the full shelters, Johansen said centers such as Safe Voices have “a vast array of resources and we’re also really great creative problem-solvers. And so we continue to assist people fleeing a really dangerous situation.”

U.S. Sen. Angus King was one of 38 senators who sent a letter this week to U.S. Senate leaders seeking to have any future legislation addressing the coronavirus pandemic include support for victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, noting that legislation already enacted provided $45 million for domestic violence services funded through the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act and $2 million for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

The letter reads: “Historically, instances of domestic violence have increased in times of national crisis — and this crisis may be particularly dangerous for people who experience domestic violence.

“Following the urging of public health officials, approximately 95% of Americans are now living under a stay-at-home order to help prevent the spread of the virus. But for many, home is not a safe place.

“Reports suggest that abusers are using COVID-19 to isolate their victims, withhold financial resources, and refuse medical aid. Rape crisis centers are seeing increased need for services and are confronting complex and difficult requests.”

Johansen said survivors of domestic violence also face a difficult decision whether to seek medical attention at a hospital, since hospitals have adopted strict protocols for triage in response to COVID-19. Or an abuser may threaten to cancel the health insurance of a survivor as a way of exercising control.

Stark urged anyone who knows someone who might be a victim of domestic abuse or violence to reach out to that person.

“I think that this is a time when friends, family and neighbors are critically important, because you may be the only connection that survivors have beyond the house that they’re living in,” she said.

“So being really aware and watchful, perhaps making an arrangement with that survivor for a plan, even have a code word or question that the person might ask you that should indicate that they’d like you to call the police for them or they’d like you to come and get them,” she said. “These are times in which we need to be creative and connected to those we care about, in much more intentional ways.”

She also urged anyone who knows someone who might be an abuser to try to connect with them as well.

“If you’re a person that they talk to and respect, this is a time to be reaching out to them regularly to see how they’re doing. And to see whether or not they need any kind of support to help them regulate and avoid committing violence against their family,” she said.

The Safe Voices hotline, 800-559-2927, is open 24/7.

 


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