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RI domestic violence 9-1-1 calls rising amid COVID-19 crisis

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Staying at home is meant to protect Rhode Islanders from a dangerous disease. But the public health strategy could also be fueling a different type of danger.

The R.I. State Police counted 178 calls to 9-1-1 related to domestic violence during the week ended April 18, representing a 47% increase from the 121 calls during the same week a month earlier. The increase comes as thousands of Rhode Islanders have been forced out of work and ordered to stay home to help curb future spread of COVID-19, which has killed 251 Rhode Islanders.

Gov. Gina Raimondo, who issued the stay-at-home order on March 28, has acknowledged the problem. “Not everybody is safe at home,” she said recently, adding, “Unfortunately, that seems to be doubly true now.”

Domestic violence advocates said the increase is concerning, but also expected as family members are suddenly forced to spend more time together in close proximity — which is dangerous for people in abusive relationships.

“The outside is unsafe because of COVID, and now the inside is unsafe because the abuser may have 24-hour access to the victim,” said Tonya Harris, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The pandemic has also created significant stress for people, but Harris warned against thinking the two are related, saying domestic violence is about control and power and it exists with and without the presence of COVID-19.

“There are so many stresses right now for everybody in Rhode Island, and that stress is amplified for someone who is in a domestic violence relationship,” she said. “But the stresses are not excuses nor do they justify violence.”  

The law enforcement numbers also don’t tell the whole story, Harris added, noting calls to the coalition’s confidential helplines in March were up 29% versus the same time a year earlier. The uptick, she said, could represent a positive trend.

“The call numbers also mean that people are reaching out for services more, so that’s great,” she said, encouraging others who might be experiencing domestic violence to start planning for how to access services.

  • CALL: The 24/7 confidential statewide helpline at 1-800-494-8100

Raimondo earlier in the month raised concerns that fewer people than normal were seeking out shelters and other domestic violence services in part because they thought organizations were either closed or posed a health risk. She noted that while calls had grown, in-take at shelters had decreased.

“It tells me that people are afraid to reach out,” she said.

Harris underscored that the coalition’s five agencies remain open, along with its confidential online chat services and hotline – which are accessible 24/7. Courts also continue to accept restraining order requests, offering people some legal recourse during the public health crisis.

“We hear your voice, we are listening and we’re fiercely advocating for you at every level,” Harris said.

A rise in domestic violence globally has been cited by some who favor reopening the economy more quickly, including protesters who showed up at the State House last weekend demanding that Raimondo lift her stay-at-home order.

At least two protesters held up a sign showing projected increases in domestic abuse, along with suicides and food insecurity, underscoring the economic and health repercussions that could come along with shutting down an economy.

“It’s Not About A Haircut,” protesters wrote on the sign, referencing a popular characterization of protesters who favor reopening the economy — the idea being that people can’t live without barbershops and salons open.

For now, Raimondo is sticking by her plan to start reopening the economy after her stay-at-home order ends on May 8. But not everyone will be immediately allowed to leave their homes and get back to work.

Like the shutdown, reopening the economy will happen in phases, and the governor said Wednesday people should expect continued restrictions throughout the summer – or until a treatment for the disease is approved.

A new wave of the disease, meanwhile, could throw the state back into a state of shutdown.

And while the restrictions are designed to protect Rhode Islanders, Raimondo has likewise noted how keeping people out of work for long periods of time could negatively affect their lives.

“There is a relationship between economic health and physical health,” Raimondo said Tuesday.

Nearly 200,000 unemployment claims related to COVID-19 had been filed with the R.I. Department of Labor and Training as of Wednesday.

“I will never do anything in our economy that our public health experts deem dangerous – there is a balance,” she added.

In the meantime, Raimondo is urging Rhode Islanders to pay closer attention to friends and neighbors and to look for signs of abuse. And Harris is asking everyone to be ready to provide domestic violence resources to people who might be suffering, urging patience and compassion.

“Listen to the victim, believe them, don’t pass judgement and respect that there are boundaries, and that they will work at their own pace,” Harris said.

For people experiencing domestic violence: the 24/7 confidential statewide Helpline, which can be reached at 1-800-494-8100, continues to operate, providing assistance and referrals. Domestic violence advocates also offer confidential support through a 24/7 confidential live chat helpline, accessible by visiting www.ricadv.org

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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