Mass layoffs and home confinement orders prompted by the coronavirus outbreak could create a toxic brew for domestic violence, according to those who work to prevent it.
"We're really worried about people stuck in these households with their abusers and no other outlet," said Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Prior to the pandemic, according to Steps to End Domestic Violence interim executive director Ana Burke, "If an abuser was off at work, it would give someone several hours of reprieve to do some safety planning — possibly to leave. But now that everyone's at home, some people may be in situations where their abuser is home all day, all night."
Burke's Burlington-based organization and 14 others that serve survivors throughout the state remain open. But each has had to adapt to public health regulations to ensure that staff and clients practice appropriate social distancing. In some cases that has involved moving residents of the shelters they run to hotels and motels, according to Sarah Robinson of the Vermont Network.
Serving those who are stuck inside with their abuser "has proven to be very complicated," according to Nadia Lucchin, executive director of the Bennington-based Project Against Violent Encounters. "We are increasing our outreach efforts via social media and checking in much more frequently with survivors in emergency shelter," she said.
Such organizations typically help survivors file for relief-from-abuse orders against violent partners. But according to Amanda Cochrane, executive director of St. Johnsbury-based Umbrella, "Now some are worried that the abusive partner will not have anywhere safe to go and could get sick, complicating an already agonizing situation."
It may be too soon to know how much the problem will worsen during the pandemic.
Speaking Wednesday to the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee, David D'Amora of the Council of State Governments' Justice Center said that, nationally, the coronavirus response has made an "epidemic" of domestic violence "immeasurably worse."
"Just by tracking the news stories and by tracking the increase in 911 calls alone, the dramatic increase in violence against women and children is just overwhelming," he said.
In Vermont, the situation appears to be evolving. "We saw a spike right after the announcement came to close the schools," John Campbell, executive director of the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs, told committee members. "But that's leveled off, and it's been relatively quiet, thankfully, this past week. But every one of the state's attorneys feel the same way: that this is the calm before the storm."
Washington County State's Attorney Rory Thibault told VTDigger earlier this week that his office had seen an alarming uptick in domestic violence reports over the previous seven days, though he said he could not directly attribute the increase to the outbreak.
In populous Chittenden County, State's Attorney Sarah George has not seen such a jump. "I imagine that if it rises, it will be in the coming weeks when those who have lost their jobs start to feel those additional pressures and stressors within their homes," she told Seven Days.
Leaders of domestic violence advocacy organizations say they intend to continue serving survivors throughout the crisis. They encourage those who feel threatened to contact their local advocacy group or to call the Vermont Network's statewide, 24-hour hotline: 800-228-7395.
"We want folks getting the message that we're still here," Burke said. "The advocacy just looks a little different right now."