ELLSWORTH — Calls to domestic violence helplines have been down in recent weeks. That’s not a good thing.
“We believe we’re not seeing an increase in calls because if you are home with someone who’s abusive to you it’s probably not safe to make that call,” said Dorathy Martel, executive director of The Next Step Domestic Violence Project. “That scares us, frankly. It is the thing that keeps a lot of us up at night.”
Martel said her organization is working to figure out how those in dangerous home situations can safely reach out for help, but reiterated several times that the helplines are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and staffers are waiting to take calls from anyone, including those who are worried about friends or family and want advice on how to help. The number is 1-800-315-5579.
“We’ve had calls from community members saying what’s happening to people?” said Martel. “We can’t know. But what we fear is people are isolated in homes with people who are already abusive to them and they don’t have a lot of options to reach out.”
“That’s one of the ways in which friends and family may be able to be helpful to folks,” said Francine Garland Stark, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.
If it’s safe, said Garland Stark, friends and family should try and reach out more often to check on anyone they’re concerned about, and create “some signaling plan for how to be able to reach out.”
“Is it possible to have them shelter at home with you, for a time?”
Next Step’s shelters were already nearly full before the coronavirus crisis, said Martel, but the organization has suspended moving in new residents for the time being because of the outbreak.
“It’s really not a matter of not having enough bed space but not being able to safely to put people in congregate living situations” where the virus could spread rapidly, said Martel. “It is one of the challenging problems. We don’t want to leave people homeless, but we also don’t want to bring people in and then sicken them … we don’t have good answers for that right now.”
Law enforcement officials are still arresting those accused of violent crimes, said Garland Stark.
“People who are committing crimes against their family members are still doing so in violation of the law,” she said.
With the fear that outbreaks will spread quickly through the state’s jails and prisons, many have begun releasing prisoners in recent weeks, and courts have been “basically shut down,” Matt Foster, district attorney for Hancock and Washington counties, told The Ellsworth American in March.
“The Maine Judicial Branch has basically shut down the courts for everything except in-custody arraignments and emergency hearings until after May 1,” Foster said.
According to the Portland Press Herald, county jails have reduced their overall population by nearly 20 percent over three weeks. On Feb. 28, more than 1,670 people were incarcerated in Maine’s 15 county jails. That number was down to 1,350 by March 20.
“We have been paying close attention to the very important work being done in the counties and state prison level in trying to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated,” said Garland Stark.
There are also fears for children who may be living in abusive situations who are now home from school and concerns regarding shared custody arrangements where one partner may not be following health guidelines, Martel said.
“You don’t know if your child is safe from coronavirus, you don’t know if your child is carrying coronavirus, you don’t know if your child is getting any education,” she said.
“Now you have this added risk of illness and not following through with educational plans.”
In an emailed statement, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said the “Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) is continuing its commitment to ensure that Maine children and their families are safe, stable, happy and healthy. While the focus of our efforts has not changed, OCFS has modified practices in some areas to ensure the safety of children and families and of our staff.”
The office is still investigating reports of domestic violence, abuse and neglect in person, said Farwell, and has added a pre-screening questionnaire to assess if anyone in the household “is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or has engaged in recent travel that may increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.”
The office “has obtained a limited supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff working directly with the public,” said Farwell, and is encouraging the use of telehealth for children’s therapy appointments. To report concerns of abuse or neglect, call OFCS at 1-800-452-1999.
There is also the added issue of finances. Many domestic violence organizations, including Next Step and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, are nonprofits. Although both get the bulk of their funding for staffing and other baseline needs from state and federal funding, they are in need of money for other bills, such as paying for heat and electricity and buying groceries and other necessities for clients, Martel said.
“What we really could use is some flexible funding for things we always need flexible funding for,” Martel said. “We certainly could use help with not so much the programming costs but the overhead and everything else.”
If you or someone you know is being affected by domestic violence, help is available through the Statewide Domestic Abuse Helpline: 1-866-834-HELP (1-866-834-4357) or by calling Next Step at 1-800-315-5579.