Law enforcement, advocates fear an uptick in domestic violence as residents stay home for COVID-19

"There are many grim scenarios we could imagine and many of them are likely to occur."

Congress Street in downtown Boston was nearly empty last week. As people are forced inside for longer periods, advocates worry that domestic abuse incidents could spike.
Congress Street in downtown Boston was nearly empty last week. As people are forced inside for longer periods, advocates worry that domestic abuse incidents could spike. –Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

For some, home is not always the safest place to be. 

Experts are warning that they expect to see an increase in incidents of domestic violence as people are told to stay at home and practice social distancing to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Advocates and service providers for survivors of domestic or sexual violence say they are working to ensure support remains uninterrupted and available to anyone who may need it.

Debra Robbin, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., also known as the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, said her group is working to make sure survivors know that hotlines and services are still up and running across the state. 

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“Those who are most vulnerable in our society are most vulnerable during this period of time,” she told Boston.com. “The things that we are being told that will positively impact our public health is for people to be home — and we know that that is not a universal message that creates safety for everyone. So we are very concerned about that.”

Massachusetts, she pointed out, saw its first domestic violence homicide of 2020 on March 26 in Mashpee, where a 45-year-old man was arrested and charged with the murder of his girlfriend. 

It isn’t clear that there was a causal relationship between the homicide and the COVID-19 pandemic in the Mashpee incident, but Robbin said it is a concern that she and others are going to watch “very carefully” as the virus outbreak continues. 

She said she has already heard from partners in law enforcement who are also concerned and have observed a “slight uptick” in calls related to domestic violence.

In Cambridge, police said they have not yet seen an increase in domestic violence calls during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“We do (unfortunately) anticipate there will be an increase in the event that people are advised to remain inside their homes for an extended period of time,” Cambridge police spokesman Jeremy Warnick said in an email to Boston.com.

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The department’s domestic violence unit is consulting daily with Transition House, which provides a range of support and services to survivors. 

“This is really an ongoing issue and concern that’s evolving,” Robbins said. “It’s very fluid. We’re also thinking about children who witness and experience domestic or sexual violence in their home and what the impact is on their safety and their wellbeing. We’re thinking about other family members who, again, either witness or experience sexual and/or domestic violence in their home. We know that you are most likely to be sexually assaulted by someone you know, and so what does that mean in this time when people are being told to isolate? There are many grim scenarios we could imagine and many of them are likely to occur.”

“It’s really important that we also focus on what we can do, because it’s very easy to go into that path of fear, which is real,” Robbins added.

The director of Jane Doe said it is also important for everyone to remember that domestic violence and sexual assault are not incidents that only occur when an abuser is angry. 

“It is about exerting power and control to manipulate and harm another person,” she said. “So what this means is for folks who have already been experiencing this, it puts them in a more vulnerable place. We don’t look at it as something that someone wakes up someday and suddenly it’s there — we know that the power and control that is exhibited by abusers and those who cause harm is something that evolves over time and can worsen through certain factors. Abusers are also very resourceful and creative, so they may be using this as a way to exert other forms of power and control.”

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Sharon Imperato, the clinical innovation projects and training director at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, said she and her colleagues are also concerned about the potential for people to be forced and isolated in a space with an abuser or potential abuser.

“When people feel less in control, hurting of others tends to go up,” she said. “So right now a lot of people are feeling out of control or maybe feeling unsafe, so in times like this, people then might lead to hurting others.”

The best thing advocates and service providers can do is make sure there are as many options for help as possible to those who might need it. 

“If we do that, it allows the people in these situations to rely on their own expertise in their own life and then decide moment to moment, ‘What is the safest resource for me to utilize?’ at any moment in time,” she said. “So the more resources, the more we remind people that there are supports and resources like BARCC out there, the more we can help reduce the issues around safety.”

At BARCC, Imperato said they’ve already seen an increase in requests for service requests from survivors around food, housing, and financial insecurities. 

“Financial impacts related to sexual trauma is something that survivors experience anyway, and then adding on and being compounded by the financial impacts of the pandemic,” she said. “So that’s another concern — focusing on survivors and making sure they’re getting their basic needs met.”

With the pandemic, BARCC is continuing to offer all its services remotely, which can be accessed through their hotline. 

It is more important than ever, Robbins and Imperato said, for people to remain socially connected and create opportunities to decrease isolation. 

“Domestic violence and sexual assault thrives in silence,” Robbins said. “Long before we had a pandemic, we would find out that our next door neighbor was being abused and we never knew it. Because what we know is that there is a public persona and a private persona, and that is even more hidden now.”

Feelings of isolation are already an ongoing impact for survivors of sexual violence, which the pandemic will likely compound, Imperato said.

This can be a very difficult and triggering time for survivors,” she told Boston.com. “Isolation is a huge issue and can exacerbate any of the experiences or symptoms of trauma they’ve experienced. 

Connecting with others is the antidote to that isolation, and helps survivors regain a sense of safety in the world, she said. If you know someone is a survivor of sexual violence, she urged you to reach out to check in on them. Social distancing, she pointed out, means physical distance. 

“It’s really, really important to remind them that they’re not alone,” she said. “It’s important to provide ways of getting services. It’s important to think about new, interesting ways to  stay engaged.”

Robbins encouraged everyone to help by making sure to check in, from six feet away, on the people you know. Ask how they are doing, and check in on how your child’s friends are doing, she said.

“If your neighbor knows that you are checking in on them, it at least expands some measure of connectedness and accountability that might not have existed before,” she said.

“There are ways we can try to be creative and think about what being a good neighbor, a good colleague, a good friend might be and just opening up those questions,” added. “You don’t have to be an expert in the field — there are resources. And we know, victims and survivors and advocates working on this are the most creative people I know. They are very resilient and creative, so it’s really about how do we create a new, redefined safety net.” 

If you have experienced sexual or domestic violence and would like help or information, you can contact the following resources: 

National

National Domestic Violence Hotline:  24/7 crisis hotline: (800) 799-7233 or visit  https://www.thehotline.org/ 

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit https://www.rainn.org/

In Massachusetts

SafeLink, the statewide 24/7 domestic violence hotline: 1-877-785-2020

Jane Doe Inc.: Find a map of local services at  https://janedoe.org/find_help/ 

BARCC: 24/7 support hotline: 1-800-841-8371

Support webchat (9 a.m. to 11 p.m.): barcc.org/chat


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