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Spike in domestic violence expected due to COVID-19 outbreak

Courthouses and other buildings have closed due to the pandemic of COVID-19, leading experts to anticipate a spike in domestic violence due to the state's stay-at-home advisory. (Olivia Falcigno)

LYNN — Services are still available for victims of domestic violence — and for perpetrators — but with restraining orders, counseling, and advocacy happening only over the phone, a spike in the number of domestic violence cases is expected during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to Victoria Helberg, a victims advocate and law enforcement partnership coordinator for the Somerville-based nonprofit RESPOND Inc., domestic violence professionals are concerned about the state’s “stay-at-home” advisory due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the coronavirus that has infected thousands in Massachusetts. 

“Being at home 24 hours a day with an abusive partner, you’ve become the main target,” Helberg said. 

RESPOND partners with police departments in Malden, Melrose, Wakefield, Reading, Wilmington, and Woburn, Helberg said, but the organization provides services to domestic violence victims everywhere, including Lynn. 

The organization’s offices and in-person services are closed during the pandemic, but its 24-hour hotline for victims of abuse — (617) 623-5900 — is “and always will be” open, Helberg said. Those who call can get advice on immediate actions to take, as well as create a safety plan, in the event an intimate partner becomes abusive. 

Emergency shelters are also still open, including that of Healing Abuse Working for Change, commonly known as HAWC, which also operates a 24-hour hotline for those experiencing domestic abuse, (800) 547-1649.

But offering services exclusively over the phone, or via applications like Zoom, poses problems, Helberg said. Those suffering from abuse may be less likely to call or email RESPOND if they are confined at home with an abusive partner. 

“In person is much better for so many reasons,” Helberg said. “There has to be a bit of trust.”

Helberg said she is unsure how long the coronavirus restrictions will last, and how long RESPOND’s offices will be closed. On the HAWC website, it says its Lynn, Salem, and Gloucester offices will be closed until at least April 7. 

“Tensions are rising,” Helberg said. “Calls to the police are going to increase and calls to us are going to increase.”

Helberg said RESPOND is offering advice to those that call to minimize the likelihood of abuse.

“There’s nowhere to go. We’re telling them how they can be as safe as possible at home,” Helberg said. “If you’re having an argument, be away from the kitchen, be away from the bathroom, be away from stairs. If there are kids, work on a plan where kids can call 911. If there’s a friend you can call, come up with a code word.”

Dan Ellis, director of the Intimate Partner Abuse Education Program with Eliot Community Human Services, works with those who are batterers or convicted of domestic abuse, many of whom are court-ordered to take part in the organization’s 40-week program. With offices closed, Ellis has come up with a two-phase plan. For the next two weeks, each person in the program will have a phone conversation with someone at Eliot Community Human Services. During those conversations, the organization will gauge how realistic it is to provide services to batterers using the virtual communication application Zoom. After two weeks, meetings on Zoom will begin.

But Ellis is concerned the virtual meetings will not be as effective as in-person sessions. 

“I’m very concerned. The guidelines set forth are for a good cause and important for everyone’s health, but I think this unintentionally poses high risks. We are urging perpetrators to stay in homes,” he said. 

Ellis said being confined at home, experiencing financial distress, and being in close contact with a victim is a “perfect storm” making it more likely batterers will abuse their partners. 

“Even calling victims isn’t as safe now because our clients are in the house. It might not be safe to have those conversations,” Ellis said. 

“Can you envision in your mind a group session where the victim is sitting in the room? Or children are there?” Ellis said. 

Ellis said he’s particularly concerned about the many clients who have long criminal histories and may resort to using drugs or alcohol to justify their abusive behaviors. Eliot Community Human Services is waiving all its program fees at this time to encourage its clients to “keep in contact,” he said. Ellis said he’s not sure how that will affect the organization financially “down the road.”

There is no additional funding from the state during the coronavirus outbreak for domestic violence services, Ellis said, and, unfortunately, it might take a severe case of domestic violence  “making headlines” before any real resources are diverted to combat abuse. 

Carrie Kimball, a spokeswoman for the Essex County District Attorney’s Office, said courts and offices are closed, with arraignments and restraining orders happening over the phone. 

“It’s an unprecedented situation that is obviously extra stressful for people,” Kimball said. 

Assistant district attorneys remain on call during court hours, and all the services normally provided are available even though courts are not physically open, Kimball said. The district attorney’s office numbers are (978) 745-6610. 

Seek help
If in physical danger, call 9-1-1. 

The following contact information is also available for those in abusive relationships:

RESPOND:

24-hour hotline: 617-623-5900

Email: info@respondinc.org

Web: www.respondinc.org

HAWC:

24-hour hotline: 800-547-1649

Web: www.hawcdv.org    

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