The woman and her boyfriend moved from New York into his family’s home in York County in March, just as the pandemic began and stay-at-home orders were put in place.
It was in that small rural town, away from the city life she was used to, that the abuse began. As the months passed, the isolation and abuse escalated, exacerbated by the pandemic that kept them together around the clock, she said.
“It turned out to be an absolute disaster,” said the 31-year-old woman, who asked not to be identified by name because of concern for her safety. “I lost my mobility. … With the pandemic, there was this sense of isolation. I’d say ‘I’ll call the cops’ and he’d say, ‘Where are you going to sleep?’ He knew I was helpless because of the pandemic.”
The woman, who is now staying in housing provided by York County’s Caring Unlimited domestic violence resource center, is among the growing number of domestic abuse and violence victims who have called hotlines or sought emergency shelter since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. And most of them say the pandemic played a role in the abuse they suffered, advocates say.
The number of all helpline calls, emails, text messages and other contacts received by Maine’s domestic violence support agencies rose 49 percent from April through June last year compared to the same period this year.
“COVID-19 has shone a really bright spotlight on the risks that survivors face. They’re risks that are very much exacerbated by the pandemic, but they’re not new risks and this problem is not new,” said Regina Rooney of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. “What COVID-19 does to survivors is exacerbate the dynamics that already exist for them. They’re already routinely experiencing isolation by their partners. Their partners are using isolation as a tactic to keep them under control. Now those abusive partners have even more opportunities to do that with COVID-19.”
As the first cases of the virus were reported in the state in March and Mainers stayed home from work and school, domestic violence helplines went quiet. Few victims were reaching out for emergency shelter or protection from abuse orders. But advocates knew the abuse hadn’t stopped.
“For the first two weeks, it was very quiet, which made us very nervous. Our worry was victims were quarantined with their abusers and couldn’t reach out,” said Rebekah Paredes, the executive director of New Hope for Women, which serves domestic abuse and violence survivors in the midcoast area.
As domestic violence resource centers pivoted to provide online services and secure more housing and funding to help with an expected increase in need, victims have been increasingly accessing those services and leaving abusive situations.
The biggest increase in the number of contacts with resource centers has come through emails, texts, secure chat and video services, which rose 145 percent from the same period a year ago, compared to a 20 percent increase for phone calls to traditional help lines. From April through June, there were 4,800 helpline calls and 3,022 electronic contacts statewide, according to the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.
The number of victims in need of emergency shelter has also increased at a time when agencies have had to adjust shelter accommodations for social distancing. At the Rockland-based New Hope for Women, the total number of people in the shelter each day from April to June surged from 23 in 2019 to 992 during the same period this year.
“The need is out there and it’s growing,” Paredes said.
Domestic abuse advocates say nearly 75 percent of the people who have reached out for help in the past few months have indicated they had elevated safety concerns because of COVID-19. Often, victims had no respite from their abusers and were further isolated because they were not working and could not see family or friends. Others reported that their abusers threatened to expose them to the virus or that they didn’t seek help because they were afraid of contracting it.
“When you are trying to calculate what is going to be safe for you, the fear of getting sick and the pandemic is a factor in that,” said Susan Giambalvo, executive director of Caring Unlimited. “It may feel safer to stay put.”
As demand for services increased, domestic violence agencies used money received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to shelter people in hotels and motels, a critical option as shelters limit the number of people they can serve in a single building to maintain safe distance and isolation, Rooney said.
“That funding is going quite quickly and programs are concerned about what comes next, and about how they ensure these sheltering options remain sustainable for the duration of the pandemic that is not going away anytime soon,” she said.
The state’s eight domestic violence resource centers received $137,547 through the CARES Act based on a population-based formula. Maine’s low population means the state got a relatively small amount of money. State coalitions received a separate $80,357 award through the CARES Act to optimize the ability to provide training, technical assistance and education remotely.
It is uncertain if Congress will include more funding for domestic violence prevention in a future stimulus package. Advocates from across the country are pushing for that legislation to include a fix to the Victims of Crime Act that will make funding more sustainable in the long term and provide support for noncitizen survivors and communities of color, Rooney said.
Since COVID-19 began, the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence has received nearly $211,000 in donations from individuals and foundations.
“It is a number that far exceeds the CARES Act and we are so grateful to how Mainers have stepped up to fill the gaps when the needs are so great,” Rooney said.
‘A SHADOW PANDEMIC’
Domestic violence has increased globally during coronavirus lockdowns, according to the United Nations, which calls domestic abuse a “shadow pandemic” alongside COVID-19. Worldwide, it is estimated that cases have increased 20 percent during the lockdown as many people were trapped at home with their abuser. Cities around the world have seen a dramatic increase in demand for social services and assistance, according to the U.N.
In the United States, the number of people who contacted the National Domestic Violence Hotline in March dropped by 6 percent compared to 2019, an unusual decline the hotline attributed to survivors feeling less safe reaching out for support because they were in close proximity to their abusive partner.
As shelter-in-place orders began to lift across the country, the hotline’s contact volume increased in April by 15 percent over the previous year. Roughly 10 percent of the survivors in contact with the national hotline cited COVID-19 as a condition of their experience, and experts with the organization expect to see an unprecedented number of survivors reporting abuse and seeking community support in coming months.
Calls to Maine domestic violence hotlines have been increasing, but the same increases are not necessarily showing up yet in police reports or requests for Protection from Abuse orders, perhaps related to the impacts of the pandemic.
Domestic violence assaults have been declining over the past six years, according to the most recent report of crime trends in Maine. Domestic violence assaults dropped by nearly 12 percent in 2018, from 4,178 reports in 2017 to 3,699 reports in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. About half of Maine’s homicides are related to domestic violence.
Portland police saw a decrease in the number of domestic dispute and domestic violence assault reports in the first couple months of the pandemic, but those reports have since returned to normal levels, said Lt. Robert Martin.
The department’s domestic violence investigator saw more reports initiated by a neighbor or relative who called police to report the incidents, Martin said. More recently, Portland police have handled several cases that were initiated after victims reached out directly to advocates at Through These Doors. Victims tell police the pandemic limited their ability to reach out for help due to financial constraints and housing issues, he said.
The state’s courts had not seen a rise in Protection from Abuse orders as of the end of June, based on the most recent court data provided by the Maine Judicial Branch. It’s unclear, however, whether the pandemic discouraged the filing of protection orders in recent months.
Advocates say victims have been able to access courts for PFAs during the pandemic, but were not able to have an advocate with them in person while they navigated that court process. Instead, agencies are working with victims over the phone to walk them through the process and answer questions.
“Advocates have really done an incredible job of making sure they are still present for people even if they could not physically be present in those community spaces the same way they were before,” Rooney said.
Domestic violence hotlines have been at the core of response and prevention in Maine for decades, but during the pandemic resource centers created online alternatives to ensure victims could reach out while at home with abusers. With social distance restrictions on in-person meetings, advocates also had to get creative to connect with victims, support them in court and provide emergency housing.
Rebecca Hobbs, executive director of Through These Doors in Cumberland County, said the agency has seen a 70 percent increase in people reaching out through email and social media. Calls to the helpline in June were up 40 percent over the previous year. The number of people needing shelter this spring was up 75 percent, prompting the agency to move more people into confidential locations away from the shelter.
“Our advocates are reporting that there is an increased urgency in people’s situations,” Hobbs said. “There’s a more desperate need to find other alternatives.”
Sandra Medina, 49, said she came to the Through These Doors shelter this spring after experiencing domestic violence and temporarily losing custody of her daughter. It was at the start of the pandemic and the shelter had to institute new rules that required people to ask permission to leave, she said.
“This is really hard for women just coming out of domestic violence,” Medina said. Eventually, Through These Doors soon moved her into a hotel outside Portland, where she spent her time connecting with support groups and educational classes on Zoom, before moving back into the shelter this summer.
Medina now attends a support group nearly every day online through agencies across the state. She’ll move into her own apartment next week and hopes to reunite with her daughter by the end of the month.
“I dived into helping myself recover. I was getting the help I finally needed,” she said. “I was finally getting a support system, all of this through my computer and Zoom. I’ve been able to start my entire life over again.”
In Aroostook County, the Hope and Justice Project moved its support groups to online video platforms. Because the sprawling rural county does not have cell coverage and internet service in all areas, staff from the resource center also had to find other ways to meet survivors while social distancing and wearing masks, said Tammy Albert, director of prevention, education and training for the center.
The Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, which is based in Lewiston with an office in Portland, faced unique challenges as staff members tried to connect with victims while COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting the community it serves, said executive director Fatuma Hussein.
The Immigrant Resource Center relies primarily on word of mouth, face-to-face visits during office hours and home visits to find abuse victims and connect them with culturally response services. Advocates from different counties who speak a variety of languages work with victims who rely on them for help with not only a safety plan, but for empowerment, transportation, education and access to a variety of resources.
“We wanted to make sure these victims were not left high and dry,” Hussein said. “They needed the continuum of service delivery. It had to happen one way or another.”
Instead of being with victims physically, resource center staff had to rely on phone calls and What’s App community groups to connect. They sent Uber to pick up survivors to bring them to appointments instead of driving them in their own cars. Everyone had to work two to three times as hard to provide those services, particularly after the staff was “ravaged” by COVID-19, a situation Hussein said continues to be very painful.
“Everyone is still trying to figure out what to do with providing services to the level we were before the pandemic hit us,” Hussein said. “We’re still learning.”
At New Hope for Women, the resource center that serves Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties, the biggest challenge and change came with emergency housing. The center does not have a traditional brick-and-mortar shelter, but does operate a transitional housing program and has a network of volunteers who open their homes for a “safe homes” program to shelter survivors.
That safe homes program was suspended because of the virus, leaving the center to rely on local hotels and motels to house survivors. The center is now working with survivors who need more intensive case management support and it is taking longer to transition people out of motels and into transitional housing.
“We’ll get to the point in the next few months that some of the hotels we are working with close for the season. There won’t be as many resources out there,” Paredes said. “We as an agency and as a community are grappling with knowing this isn’t over.”
The pandemic prompted Caring Unlimited to launch a texting platform for survivors and created social media content aimed at family and friends who might be able to connect victims to resources. Staff worked with the court system to make sure they could be on the phone with victims as they filed for protection orders.
“Because isolation is such a big part of domestic violence, I think that’s been the hardest part for us and the people we support,” Giambalvo, the executive director, said. “We can’t bring people together for mutual support and it feels like a real change.”
When the 31-year-old woman living with her boyfriend in York County was connected with Caring Unlimited, she was able to get the support she needed despite the challenges of the pandemic, she said. Giambalvo said 97 percent of the people they have worked with during the pandemic say the agency was able to meet their needs over the phone.
Through her work with advocates and case managers, the woman said she now understands that abuse comes in many forms, and she wants to use her voice to help other survivors.
Without a job and unable to drive when she came to Maine, she found herself completely dependent on her boyfriend, whom she met in college, the woman said.
“If we were having an argument and I stood up for myself, he would literally cover my face with his hands and yell in my ears. I didn’t know it was abuse. I genuinely believed I did something wrong,” she said. “Prior to this, I thought domestic violence was when someone beats you black and blue. I didn’t realize it was happening to me.”
She said there was some of physical abuse, such as pushing and shoving, but much of the abuse came in other forms. The woman, who grew up in a South Asia country, said he instilled fear in her about her race and wearing the clothing she prefers because it is different from American women.
When she and her boyfriend went back to New York in June to pick up more of their belongings, the violence escalated and her boyfriend raped her, the woman said. She didn’t recognize that act as rape until she later received assistance from Caring Unlimited and Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine. She said she has since reported the rape to police in New York City.
The NYPD does not comment on possible investigations or the status of current investigations, according to Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell, a spokesperson for the department. She said department encourages anyone who has been the victim of a rape or sexual assault to file a report so police can perform a comprehensive investigation and offer support and services to the survivor.
Back in Maine, the boyfriend left the woman stranded alone in the rural home, where she began to have panic attacks. She reached out for medical help and was taken to the hospital, where police and medical providers recognized she was being abused, she said.
The woman was connected with Caring Unlimited and Sexual Assault Response Services and has received assistance with emergency housing and access to other support services. With help from advocates, she filed for a temporary Protection from Abuse order and is in the process of seeking a permanent order.
In the month and a half since connecting with Caring Unlimited, the woman said she has been making plans to attend graduate school. She has also used her social media accounts to share information about domestic violence and has connected several people with resources after they described abuse they were experiencing.
“I feel like there are a lot more women in these types of situations,” she said. “I’ll do anything to help others.”