MA Coronavirus: Domestic Violence Calls Increase, Police Say

BOSTON — The new coronavirus is a burden on everyone, but it poses particular risks to victims of domestic violence.

Massachusetts police departments said there have been significant increases in domestic violence reports in March, when social distancing measures were enacted. But Leela Strong, a spokesperson for the state’s domestic violence hotline SafeLink, said there has been a decline in calls.

“If you’re at home with your abuser, there’s no time to call,” Strong said. “All you’re trying to do is survive.”

SafeLink is run by Casa Myrna, which also runs its own shelters and domestic violence services. While they’re getting fewer calls, Strong explained, other needs the organization responds to have increased. Stressful situations like the stay-at-home advisory and nonessential business shutdown — and the associated financial hardship — tend to cause an increase in domestic violence, she said.

Boston police reported significant increases in domestic assaults in March. Through April 5, the department reported 259 aggravated domestic assaults, up from 210 in the same period last year. Simple assaults increased more than 20 percent in March.

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Worcester police reported 22 aggravated domestic assaults in March, compared to 12 in March 2019. Somerville police reported a modest increase in daily domestic violence calls — about 3 percent — beginning in mid-March.

The increases are not across the board: In Cambridge, the calls in March were consistent with that month in each of the last two years, a department spokesperson said. Simple domestic assaults in Worcester were down slightly. And a Boston police spokesperson noted that domestic violence incidents were already up before social distancing measures.

Still, the stress on those at risk of domestic violence, and organizations that support them, is clearly elevated, Strong said. She estimated that the state’s support organizations will need $500,000 extra over the next few months to respond to that need. That’s about half of what Casa Myrna spends in a typical quarter, according to its nonprofit filings.

“Many don’t feel safe going to a shelter,” Strong said. “Congregant living is known to be a place where a virus like this can spread. People want to go to friends or family, or stay where they are. If we have the capacity to put folks in hotel rooms, we are doing that, minimally, in emergency situations.”

For those already in shelters, bigger families are being moved into apartments to reduce congestion. About half of the residents have been moved out, Strong said.

The organization is also getting hundreds of requests for food or rental assistance, which they are providing. Reducing financial insecurity can make people more safe, Strong explained. Many clients have been laid off or furloughed due to the shutdown, leading to stress.

“Increased stress increases the instance of violence,” she said.

Outreach work is taking more staff time than usual. Check-ins that would usually take 20 minutes are taking an hour or longer.

“This situation is bringing up trauma,” Strong said. “It’s bringing up old trauma of isolation, of financial insecurity, of stress.”

Strong asked people who can to donate cash or gift cards to consider shelters like Casa Myrna.

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