Domestic violence thrives in isolation, and it feeds off financial insecurity. Support for survivors has never been enough to overcome those dynamics. In the middle of a public health crisis on top of a severe recession, it can do even less.

In Maine and elsewhere, perennially underfunded domestic violence support agencies are being asked to do more. It’s an emergency that needs fixing now, and it illustrates how big the problem is even in normal times, and how we have the tools to help if we want to.

The number of contacts to support agencies was up 49% from April through June when compared to last year, the Maine Sunday Telegram reported this week. The number of people seeking shelter as a result of domestic violence is also on the rise, advocates say.

During that time period, there were 4,800 calls and more than 3,000 electronic contacts with domestic violence support agencies. Such numbers, while elevated, should not be a surprise. Before the pandemic, every minute in the U.S. an estimated 20 people — mostly women — experience intimate partner violence. Domestic abuse makes up 15% of all violent crime, and takes 1 in 3 female murder victims.

Now, restrictions related to COVID-19 have further isolated people being harmed by domestic abuse, keeping them at home with their abusers. At the same time, the economic downturn has left some without the means to leave an abusive relationship.

As Telegram staff writer Gillian Graham reported Sunday, agencies have adjusted to life under the pandemic. They are providing more assistance online, and they are using funding from the federal CARES Act to place survivors in hotels and motels, since some “safe houses” have been shut down and, with physical distancing requirements, shelters cannot fit as many people as before.

But Maine’s eight domestic violence resource centers split just $137,547 from the CARES Act. They’ve taken in more from donations — and that’s no substitute for strong, reliable institutional assistance programs.

They need more, not just for the present crisis but predictably into the future, so that when a survivor of domestic abuse needs assistance, it is there.

Relief has stalled in the Senate, where many Republicans are lined up against another spending package, despite the clear need.

The HEROES Act passed by House Democrats, however, includes tens of millions of dollars in well-targeted aid. It would fix funding problems in the Crime Victim Act, which uses non-taxpayer dollars to help victim service providers.

And it would address the lack of housing, which is often the top reason why people in abusive relationships don’t leave, particularly when children are involved. There is money for emergency shelter services and transitional housing, and $1 billion in housing vouchers for which survivors would be among the many Americans eligible.

The HEROES Act also includes changes for immigrants and low-income workers that, while imperfect, would help many survivors leave abusive relationships.

There is something deeper at the root of domestic violence, a problem with how the perpetrators — mostly men — view relationships and their partners as something to be controlled. That won’t be easy to fix.

We can make sure, however, that assistance is available, for all survivors and when they need it most.

That’s simply not the case, not now nor before the COVID crisis. We shouldn’t stand for it.

 


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