Hilltown domestic violence program sees major spike during pandemic

  • A memorial at the King Street McDonald’s in Northampton was dedicated to Karina Nieves, a 24-year-old city resident whose partner shot her and himself on Jan. 3, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • The National Network to End Domestic Violence reports that more than 90 percent of women who are homeless have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives. TNS PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 3/31/2020 6:33:01 PM

WORTHINGTON — Professionals who work in the field of domestic violence prevention agree that isolation is a common tactic used by abusive partners to control and threaten those they abuse. As the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing people to stay at home to protect themselves from becoming ill, some homes are not the safe havens they should be.

“COVID-19 is really increasing isolation, and the impact that we have seen is very significant,” said Kim Savery, director of community programs for Hilltown Community Health Center. “In the last three weeks, we have seen a 147% increase in engagement over this same time period in 2019.”

Last year, the center’s domestic violence community program, Hilltown Safety At Home, worked with nine clients from March 1 to March 26. This year, that number has more than doubled in the same period, and Savery says that many of those clients are new to the program.

The calls are also putting additional financial strain on the organization.

In 2019, the program had no resource distributions to clients during this period. Now, just in the last three weeks, it has distributed over $4,200 in resources, and Savery anticipates that number will increase.

The money goes toward support such as emergency hotel stays, helping people find housing, locksmith services to change locks and gift cards for groceries and gas.

“We are pretty flexible in what we can provide,” Savery said. “It is really individual and based on need.”

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, on a typical day there are more than 20,000 phone calls made to domestic violence hotlines around the country.

Now, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, there is a growing number of callers saying that their abusers are using the pandemic as a scare tactic to further isolate them from their family members and friends. In some cases, callers have reported their abusers threatening to deny them financial resources, shelter or access to medical help.  

Added stressors

According to Savery, the potential for domestic violence occurring during this pandemic is exacerbated by increased fear, anxiety and additional stressors including living in close quarters, dealing with employment and financial difficulties, facing potential resource scarcity, and behavioral challenges presented by children trying to understand and cope with the new situation.

Abusers, Savery says, may use these stressors to increase and/or justify abusing spouses, children and other family members.

Additional stressors may also cause people who have not previously been abusive to now lash out at others and become abusers.

Out of school, out of sight

The isolation caused by COVID-19 is also cutting off a critical avenue for children to report abuse at home: school.

“We often discover abuse when children talk about it at school or show up with bruises,” said Dr. Stephen Boos, a pediatrician with Baystate Health who works in Child Abuse Pediatrics and Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics. “Unless there is a severe injury that requires taking a child to a hospital, we are now less likely to know it’s happening as it is unseen.”

Continuing services

Savery says that the Hilltown Safety At Home program is currently offering virtual advocacy and support. As usual, all communications are strictly safeguarded, and telephone calls and video chats are encrypted to protect the privacy of callers.

“This protects the clients and any information they may share,” Savery said. “Nothing they say is ever discoverable, so it can’t be used by an abuser’s attorney.”

The program has two victim advocates and one child witness advocate, as well as a number of community health workers.

“We are running full bore right now, and the staff is taking every precaution to safeguard themselves and our clients,” Savery said. “We are distributing resources very similar to the car COVID-19 testing, where we have advocates pull up in their car and deliver resources wearing gloves.”

Local police departments in the Hilltowns have not yet seen an uptick in domestic violence calls, though people experiencing domestic abuse could be reaching out to support organizations rather than contacting the authorities, if they seek help at all.

“As of right now, we have had no increase in calls,” said Goshen Police Chief Jeff Hewes. “I am assuming that things could easily get crazy as time goes on.”

Chief Robert Reinke in Worthington also reported that his department has not experienced an increase in any particular kind of calls, but says he “expects that will probably change in the next couple of weeks.”

How to provide help

People interested in helping survivors of domestic abuse are being asked to put together survivor bags that contain items that would be useful to anyone who has to immediately leave their living situation.

A survivor bag may include personal toiletry items, blankets, diapers, socks and hotel, restaurant and gas gift cards.

To make arrangements for getting survivor bags to the program, call Kim Savery at 413-667-2203, ext. 310

How to get help if you are being abused

Hilltown Safety At Home advocates can be reached at 413-693-9977. You can also get information from visiting their website at hchcweb.org.

To reach the Safe Passage hotline, call 1-888-345-5282 or visit safepass.org online.

To reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline, call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY; or visit thehotline.org online.

Mitigating stressors and chaos at home

Boos and Savery both emphasize the importance of parents and caregivers modeling calm and stable behaviors to help children get through this pandemic. This will not only help reduce fear and anxiety, but it will also mitigate the amount of stress and chaos in the home that can sometimes lead to abusive situations.

“Over and over again, we are stressing that what we model for children at this point is more important than ever,” Savery said. “The more a caregiver can remain calm, the better chance a child has of coping with this situation.”

Boos also recommends additional strategies that can help to create a safer environment at home and benefit both children and adults.

Creating and sticking to a daily schedule that includes work, activities, playtime, downtime, shared meals and bedtime rituals provides the necessary structure for children and adults, making daily life at home run more smoothly.

“Caring for oneself, getting enough sleep, eating well, getting exercise and getting out into nature can be very helpful,” Boos said. 

Taking a break from COVID-19-related news from multiple and/or questionable sources can reduce stress, he added. Instead, he advises people to check reliable sources such as the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or mass.gov just once or twice a day.

More resources for families can be found at families-first.org/resources.


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