LEBANON — Staying home may mean staying safe from COVID-19. But for some, staying home also puts them at increased risk of abuse from a partner or parent.
“The lockdown was a perfect scenario for an abuser who wanted to keep control and power over the household,” said Linda Ingold, executive director of the Chelsea-based Safeline, which serves domestic violence survivors in Orange and northern Windsor counties.
Amid the lockdowns of the spring, calls to organizations supporting victims of domestic violence initially dipped. Those numbers have since returned to normal levels, but the initial quiet left some victims vulnerable to escalating abuse and unable to reach out for help as they normally would, Ingold said.
As COVID-19 case numbers once again tick upward in the Twin States, advocates are concerned that victims and their children could once again be required to shelter in place with their abusers, potentially escalating violence.
“We’re really nervous about the winter,” said Peggy O’Neil, executive director of WISE, in an interview via Zoom.
The Lebanon-based organization supports survivors in 21 towns in the core of the Upper Valley, where WISE saw a nearly 30 percent reduction in people seeking support during the months of April and May, O’Neil said.
While WISE staff members continue to support survivors remotely, they no longer welcome drop-ins to their Bank Street location, or to their other locations such as Good Neighbor Health Clinic in White River Junction, Dartmouth College’s campus in Hanover, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, the Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction, or the Windsor Connection Resource Center.
Advocates are not “out there in the community in the same way,” she said.
Still, O’Neil said her staff continue to support victims by phone and chat, and attend in-person court hearings in Windsor County and remote hearings in Lebanon. They also help victims being treated at DHMC. WISE also has had additional funding through the federal CARES Act to help survivors with utility payments, rental assistance and grocery cards, O’Neil said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the resulting stress and isolation have spurred concerns nationwide about a potential increase in abusive behavior.
One in four women and 1 in 10 men are likely to experience sexual violence, physical violence or stalking during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tens of millions of people also experience psychological aggression from their partners, such as humiliation, criticism, blame, domination, isolation, intimidation and threatening. Abusers sometimes act by limiting a victim’s access to money, transportation or people that could support them.
With children out of school in the spring, teachers, school nurses and other school staff weren’t able to detect signs of child abuse. In some cases, being cut off from family, friends, co-workers and others meant the situation at home escalated to the point that victims were forced to call 911.
“There was just no outlet,” Ingold said, “no way to get together with friends and family or other support people.”
Researchers in Boston found evidence of the harm such escalation can inflict. A study published in the journal Radiology in August found that Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston saw a decrease in the number of patients seen for intimate partner violence from March through May compared with previous years, but the incidence of physical violence and the severity of the injuries increased.
Amid the pandemic, it also has become more difficult to spot child abuse and neglect. Even when teachers notice clues during online learning sessions, pinning that down isn’t as simple as when a teacher might pull a child aside for a moment, said Becky Parton, a social worker at the Dartmouth Trauma Intervention Research Center.
In one case she was aware of, a student said, “My dad’s going to punch me if I don’t do this work,” during a virtual learning session. Parton said it took days for the teacher to set up a phone call with the student, with parental permission, to try to determine whether the comment was serious. In addition, New Hampshire’s Child Protection Services is investigating only the most serious situations through in-person visits during the pandemic, Parton said.
Now that some schools have reopened for in-person instruction, Parton said she encourages people to send children to school because it “tends to be a better place to be.”
Alternatives to policing
Calls to police to respond to family fights are on the rise, according to local officials. Hartford Deputy Police Chief Braedon Vail said responses to family fights are up nearly 70 percent this year compared with all of 2019, and Orange County Sheriff Bill Bohnyak said his department has seen a 20-25 percent uptick in calls for family disturbances, domestic violence, substance use, suicides and mental health issues.
Even still, as many as 80 percent of survivors may never interact with the police, which means calls to law enforcement can’t capture how pervasive the problem is, said Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Montpelier-based Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. She noted that some people may be undocumented or simply not want neighbors to see police at their home.
Her organization is not among those calling for defunding police, as survivors need to be able to depend on officers, she said, but she’d like public funding to go toward developing “additional pathways to safety.”
“There’s a lot of law enforcement leaders that have the same question: ‘Am I really the best person to be responding to this right now?’ ” she said. “We really just need to figure it out together.”
The lockdowns in the early part of the pandemic spurred the network to reach out to the people causing harm to their partners in a new way, issuing a news release asking people to examine their own behaviors and their partners’ reactions to them for signs of abuse.
“These behaviors are often difficult to recognize if you’re the one doing them — but acknowledging that you may be hurting your partner is the first step in moving toward a healthier relationship,” the release said.
While she said they didn’t get much response to that release, she is hopeful that alternative pathways to justice such as those offered by the Hartford Community Justice Center will help hold abusers accountable for their actions without sending them to jail.
“I think that’s going to be expanding in Vermont over the course of the next couple of years,” she said.
Stress always has the ability to disrupt people’s relationships, increasing conflict and feelings of instability even in relationships that aren’t abusive, said Eleanor Lowenthal, a marriage and family therapist who has offices in Norwich and Woodstock.
Due to the pandemic and the associated uncertainty, Lowenthal said that people are in a “heightened state of vigilance.”
“As a result of that, you are going to find yourself feeling more irritable, anxious, more likely to argue, (and with a) greater sense of sadness,” she said.
She advises people to be understanding with themselves and with each other, acknowledge their feelings and take control of the things they can. For example, she advises people to wear masks, limit in-person contacts, and to focus on their own personal care routines such as maintaining consistent times for going to bed and getting up.
She also recommends scheduling meals, work and chore time as “simple ways that you can remind yourself — you only have control over a particular area.”
Lastly, Lowenthal said she asks clients to focus on breathing through their noses.
“It’s the way that our body is trained to calm itself down through a period of stress,” she said. “Give yourself a chance to see things more clearly.”
And, she said, healthy habits cultivated now during such a chaotic time can become routines to help guide people through the rest of their lives.
Parton, the Dartmouth social worker, said that she recommends that people check in on loved ones in their own circle, their neighbors, friends and family. If the support of a professional is required, “call for help if you need it,” she said.