Advocates: Number of abuse victims at risk of lethal violence in N.H. is rising

  • Executive Director Jennifer Pierson says the Crisis Center of Central New Hamsphsire is now handling an average of more than 70 calls each week. Like in the North Country, the situations are far more dangerous and require an immediate response. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 5/22/2020 4:55:26 PM

She called New Hampshire’s domestic-violence hotline while sheltered inside her vehicle.

He had threatened to kill her, and she knew she needed to leave before it was too late.

She told him she had gone outside to check the mailbox. What if he caught a glimpse of her on the phone?

For victims of domestic violence, the coronavirus pandemic has narrowed the windows of opportunity they have to seek help. Before the onset of the pandemic, advocates at the state’s 13 crisis centers could plan with victims to proactively check in if they knew, for example, that every Thursday between noon and 1 p.m. the abusive partner went grocery shopping. But that outreach has not been safe since New Hampshire’s stay-at-home order took effect almost two months ago and forced victims inside with their abusers for longer periods of time.

Calls to the state’s domestic violence and sexual assault hotlines plummeted in late March. Now, advocates are bracing for a reversal. By late April, the number of calls to the state’s hotlines spiked 44%, and there is no slowdown in sight. As government officials take steps to reopen the state’s economy, experts project that an influx of adult victims and children will need help.

While the total calls to both hotlines is still below pre-pandemic averages, the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and its member programs are reporting an overwhelming need for emergency support services for victims at risk of lethal violence.

During a 10-day window this month, North Conway’s crisis center Starting Point responded to at least six calls where victims reported a history of attempted strangulation and/or controlling behavior accompanied by physical abuse, in addition to threats made with a weapon. Those victims are now safe and in hiding.

“People aren’t calling us as much right now for daily support or to create safety plans to protect themselves and their children in the short and long term. They can’t speak freely to do those things,” Starting Point’s Executive Director Deb Weinstein said in a recent interview. “They’re calling us because they have to get out in that moment or they’re afraid they’re going to be killed.”

Advocates at crisis centers throughout the state say those dangerous scenarios are playing out in both rural and urban communities and touching families in every demographic.

An immediate need

Concord’s Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire, which serves Merrimack County, was averaging a few calls a day in late March, but that number had doubled by early May, said Executive Director Jennifer Pierson. The center is now handling an average of more than 70 calls each week. Like in the North Country, the situations are far more dangerous and require an immediate response.

Police officers in the region are making many of those referrals as part of their 911 response, Pierson said. Using a Lethality Assessment Protocol (LAP) questionnaire, officers screen for high-risk cases with the goal of preventing serious injury or death. Any victims who screen in are immediately connected with an advocate through the state’s 24-hour domestic violence hotline.

“It’s escalating to the extent that neighbors are hearing an argument, or it’s spilling outside so people are seeing it and calling police. In those situations, we get what’s called a LAP referral,” Pierson said. “We often have just a one- or two-hour time frame to troubleshoot and get that victim out of the home or find resources for them before the abuser is released from jail on personal recognizance.”

Judges will often require no-contact orders as a condition of release for domestic violence offenders. However, the orders alone cannot fully guarantee a victim’s safety. Due to the pattern of behavior inherent in domestic abuse, the orders are often violated.

Even before the pandemic reached the Granite State, many domestic violence offenders were released from jail, as cases first brought as felonies were pleaded down to misdemeanors. Now, as the coronavirus continues to afflict New Hampshire residents, there is an even greater push to keep the accused out of jail to reduce the potential for COVID-19 exposure inside correctional facilities. That is happening at the same time that it’s far more dangerous for victims to seek help.

Advocates said anecdotally that significantly fewer victims have contacted them for assistance with filing restraining orders, which is consistent with disclosures of abuse and outreach being down overall.

Their stories are backed by statewide court data, which shows a 40% decrease in new domestic violence petitions filed last month compared to April 2019. The courts processed 222 petitions this April, whereas 371 were filed during the same month one year ago. Similarly, there was a 43% decrease in the number of stalking petitions filed in the same month-to-month comparison.

While the courts have operated on a restricted basis and heard fewer cases since mid-March, judges are still prioritizing emergency motions to include protective order petitions. Court officials have made the form available online, which allows advocates to review it remotely with victims over the phone.

‘A sense of powerlessness’

During a recent legislative forum hosted virtually by the coalition, advocates said the pandemic has created new opportunities for abusers to control victims, including by playing into widespread fears about the virus, spreading misinformation about which businesses are closed and, further, by exercising greater control of the family’s finances.

Deb Mozden, executive director of Sullivan County’s Turning Points Network, said the stay-at-home order has allowed more abusers to restrict victims’ access to information, meaning that some victims aren’t aware that social service agencies and the courts are still operating. Others who are just finding opportunities to reach out tell advocates they’re taking it day by day and hope to leave when more options are available to them.

“What we’re hearing now from survivors who are finally reaching out, many of them are trying to hunker down until they can get out permanently and not just temporarily, and try to create normalcy for their kids,” Mozden said during the May 13 forum. “Through these calls, we are hearing survivors disclosing serious, severe and repeated abuse. For many survivors, the abuse during this pandemic has significantly intensified.”

Since the state of emergency declaration two months ago, advocates have worked on new and innovative approaches to reach victims at a time when many in-person services are not available. Recognizing that it can be almost impossible for some victims to talk on the phone when isolated with their abusers, 10 of the state’s 13 crisis centers are now using web-based chat and texting services. The goal is to expand the option to victims statewide.

The coalition said the dramatic spike in traffic to their website could further illustrate the growing need and of victims’ attempts to access support in a new way. In April, the website’s home page was viewed 8,842 times, which is an increase of nearly 271% from March. Additionally, its membership programs page was viewed 544 times, which is an increase of 125% from the prior month.

Linda Douglas, the coalition’s trauma-informed services specialist, said the pandemic has severely limited victims’ access to critical support systems that are an integral part of their healing journey. Support groups for people who’ve experienced domestic violence or substance abuse have been canceled altogether or moved to online formats. Additionally, medical professionals, including therapists, are utilizing telehealth services in an effort to limit in-person contact, but not all victims are comfortable with remote care or can access it, she said.

“The biggest difficulty for people who’ve experienced trauma is not knowing when this is going to end, and that increases a sense of powerlessness over the situation and that sense of powerlessness can be very reminiscent of the dangerous situation that they may have been in as a child or as an adult in an intimate partner relationship,” Douglas said.

A safe home

Finding both temporary and permanent housing for victims remains one of the most significant challenges of this pandemic.

Before the pandemic, nearly all of the crisis centers’ domestic violence shelters were at capacity and unable to accept new clients. Crisis centers are now paying for one- to three-month stays in hotels for victims who’ve escaped emergency situations, and they’re often paying thousands of dollars to do so.

The Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire, Starting Point and Bridges of Nashua are just a few of the centers supporting five or six victims’ stays in hotels.

An emergency order signed in early April by Gov. Chris Sununu established a domestic and sexual violence emergency relief fund of up to $600,000 to help centers meet victims’ short- and long-term needs. Advocates say that fund is providing a critical lifeline to those in need and have made many of those hotel stays possible. But with crisis centers forced to cancel their annual fundraisers this year due to COVID-19, many are worried about the financial impact and how they’ll make up that significant loss.

While crisis centers have previously been able to support victims’ relocations out of state, travel restrictions and health concerns caused by the pandemic have limited those opportunities. Many in-state landlords are not showing their apartments or working with Realtors to promote vacancies, so rehousing victims and their families is now even more of a challenge, advocates said.

“We have folks in shelter or in hotels who are ready to move on but there is nothing available,” Dawn Reams, the executive director of Bridges, said during the coalition’s legislative forum. “That makes our shelter use longer and our hotel stays longer.”

Other crisis centers reported similar challenges, saying the pandemic has underscored the need for more affordable housing in New Hampshire.

In Concord recently, one woman and her children beat the odds and secured permanent housing with advocates’ assistance after a month-long hotel stay.

“Amid all the unknowns and the co-occurring crises, there is still good that’s being done,” Pierson said. “Advocates are working in overdrive trying to find housing and hitting a lot of dead ends, but when it happens it’s so, so rewarding.”

The toll that the pandemic has taken on advocates who are on the front lines is immense, Pierson said.

“They’re trying to assure these victims that everything is going to be okay. At the same time, they themselves don’t know if everything is going to be okay and when this will all be over,” she said.

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence, advocates are available 24/7 to provide free and confidential support through the statewide hotline at 1-866-644-3574. The statewide sexual assault hotline is 1-800-277-5570. You don’t have to be in crisis to reach out.

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