“It’s hard to convey what a perfect scenario this pandemic is for an abusive personality,” said Mary Jane Foster, president and CEO of Interval House, a domestic violence shelter in Hartford.
According to Foster, the combination of isolation, job loss, financial strain and the stress of homeschooling can trigger higher levels of abuse while closing off potential means of escape.
Data provided by the Connecticut State Police Public Information Office shows that domestic violence calls to the Connecticut State Police increased overall in March — 93 calls compared to 83 in March 2019 — but dropped again in April, May and June below 2019 levels.
Information from local police forces, as well as anecdotal evidence from shelter workers, paint a clearer picture of the situation: that an increase in domestic violence incidents both in number and in severity, combined with reduced communication and a lack of space in shelters, has created serious challenges for local domestic violence agencies.
The Hartford Police Department reports a 13.18% increase in “domestic calls” from March through June — a category that includes domestic violence related incidents — compared to the same period last year.
Norwich reports a jump from 64 domestic calls in March 2019 to 90 calls in March 2020. In April of 2020, the department received 88 domestic calls, and in May they received 100, compared to 82 and 90 in April and May of last year.
East Lyme also saw a slight increase from 17 domestic calls in the combined months of March, April, May and June of 2019, to 18 in the same period this year. The majority of the increase took place in April, May, and June, when the calls increased from 12 last year to 16 this year.
Kathie Verano, chief executive officer of Safe Futures, a domestic violence shelter located in New London, estimated that calls to her agency have increased by 25 percent during the pandemic, even as she has had to reduce the number of people she can accommodate in the shelter from 25 to 15 to provide adequate social distance and reduce the spread of COVID-19. Anyone else, she said, had to be put in a hotel, at the shelter’s expense.
In May, June and July of 2020, the agency spent $53,086 on hotel bills, an increase of nine times over the previous year.
Police officers also conducted more “lethality assessments” — a tool that law enforcement uses to determine whether a victim of domestic violence is in danger of being killed by an abuser. According to coalition data, the number of assessments completed between March and June of this year increased by seven percent as compared to last year.
An assessment contains 11 questions that a responding officer asks a suspected victim of abuse. Depending on the combination of responses, an officer will assess whether the person is at high risk of being killed by their abuser.
Through the first half of 2019, Meriden’s police department conducted 178 lethality assessments. That number rose to 217 in 2020.
The Manchester police conducted 62 lethality assessments in the first half of last year, of which 32 were deemed “high danger.” In 2020, the department completed 87 assessments, 39 deemed “high danger”.
If a police officer assesses that the victim is at risk, the officer places a call to the domestic violence advocate through the hotline. Coalition data shows that the number of calls that police officers made to advocates increased by nine percent this year.
Not all police departments report a significant, or steady, increase in domestic or domestic violence-related calls.
Stonington and Guilford report no change in calls regarding domestic disturbances. And Bridgeport reported a decrease in the number of domestic violence related calls from 2019 to 2020 in every month except April.
New Britain reported a decrease in domestic violence calls from 72 in 2019 to 58 in March of this year, an increase in April, from 65 to 69 calls, and in May, from 95 to 121 calls. In June, the numbers decreased again, from 102 last year to 81 this year.
Staying in touch
But even in areas where the numbers of reported incidents have not necessarily increased, domestic violence advocates have taken a more proactive approach to reaching out to existing clients who may be in even greater danger given recent social isolation.
Data provided by the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence shows that calls between victims and advocates increased by 81 percent during the pandemic compared to the same period last year. Liza Andrews, director of public policy and communications at the Coalition, said that many of those calls were advocates reaching out to check in on victims, rather than an increase of victims reaching out to the shelter.
Foster said that outgoing calls at her shelter have increased by 90 percent, and that the shelter has received many more calls from people who have never contacted them before.
She said that an increasing reliance on technology like email, phone and text communication during the pandemic has added costs for the group. Foster said that Interval House has raised $75,000 to provide employees with work phones and laptops with cameras and security features.
Although some shelters are offering counseling and support groups remotely, the format poses new problems when abusers are also spending more time at home. Denetra McBride, director of New Horizons in Middletown, said that attendance at these groups has declined since the pandemic began.
“We’ve heard from different clients that, you know, ‘I’m unable to attend because of my abusive partner. I was telling him I was going to Bible study at my church or… I was going to a friend’s house every week,’” explained McBride. “But now, if you’re on your phone or you’re on your computer attending this group meeting, they’re going to know that you’re talking to a group about domestic violence.”
The coalition reports that the number of “high risk” cases referred by police have remained fairly steady, but according to Foster, she and other agency directors have seen a rise in the number of victims who have been severely injured or threatened with severe injuries.
“What we’re seeing and we’re seeing it a lot in Hartford, is that fists are no longer enough,” said Foster. “We’re seeing threats with knives… victims are being beaten with objects.”
McBride said that in June there was a domestic violence homicide in the local community, an incident which she said deeply affected her and her colleagues.
McBride and Verano also reported an increase in alcohol and substance abuse during the pandemic among abusers and victims as a coping mechanism for all the stressors they were facing.
Foster said she doesn’t expect that the situation will improve in the coming months.
“Connecticut … has done a really wonderful job in being able to control as much as possible the pandemic,” said McBride, “But … looking into the future, what would happen if we were in the same place again that we were earlier in this year?”
McBride said that a lack of an income is one of the primary considerations that stop domestic violence victims from leaving their abusers.
“This pandemic and quarantine and isolation and abuse is going to set this next generation back about 10 years,” said Verano.