Advocates Fear Domestic Abuse Survivors Are 'Trapped With Their Abusers' During Pandemic

Download Audio

While the state's social distancing and quarantine measures help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, these same measures have created new challenges for people living in violent households.

Domestic violence support groups said they're trying to adapt to this new reality by finding new ways of connecting with survivors.

'They Don't Have A Lot Of Means For Escape'

Driving to work, dropping off a child at daycare or going to church have traditionally presented opportunities for someone being abused to make a phone call or ask for help. But most of these opportunities for social interaction have disappeared with the pandemic — making an already isolated population feel even more alone.

"Survivors are trapped with their abusers at this point, and with social isolation, they don't have a lot of means for escape or for support," said Stephanie Brown, executive director of Casa Myrna, a group that supports domestic violence survivors throughout Greater Boston.

With the added stress of financial strains, quarantines and stay-at-home advisories, Brown said, abusive households now have become even more volatile.

"The emotional and financial abuse of survivors is going to increase and heighten, and we also expect to see physical violence increase," she said.

Abusers might lash out, Brown said, spurred by time spent cooped up in the house, the loss of a job or even general anxiety around the pandemic.

(Screenshot via Safelink website)
(Screenshot via Safelink website)

Casa Myrna runs the statewide domestic violence hotline called SafeLink. According to Brown, calls to the hotline are actually down about 15%. She doesn't believe domestic violence has decreased; instead she believes that's a reflection of survivors not being able to find a safe space to make the call.

Lieutenant Gov. Karyn Polito recently announced that SafeLink is expanding staff and its capacity to triage calls in response to the new obstacles survivors are facing.

With normal points of contact mostly obsolete, community advocates said they're adapting, figuring out how to connect with survivors in their homes.

Cynthia Brazier, a Casa Myrna advocate in Dorchester, said much of her time is spent just trying to make contact with survivors.

"You know, 'are you able to at least go out on a porch or a balcony or go for a walk and then talk to me at that point,' " she said. "We want to still be there for them — providing the support — but we also want to make sure that we're not increasing the risk of danger for them as well."

On a recent afternoon, WBUR spoke with a woman who was fleeing her abusive husband and looking for emergency shelter for herself and her two children.

WBUR agreed not use her name because she's afraid for her family's safety.

She was able to make it to the offices of the Association of Haitian Women in Boston, where the group helped find space in a shelter. She shared advice for those isolated at home with their abusers.

"If they have a chance to speak with someone or call the police," she said, "share what's happening. So you're able to escape the situation before you die."

Boston saw a 22% increase in simple assault and battery reports of domestic violence last month. Boston Police Department statistics show there were 203 reports compared to 166 in March of 2019.

Brown said Casa Myrna is working closely with the BPD to identify survivors who need support.

"It's really important that everybody is paying attention because, yeah, domestic violence can be deadly," she said, "and we are really afraid that we're going to see an increase in homicides related to domestic violence."

Brown added that for anyone concerned about neighbors or family who might be living in dangerous situations, reach out to them — let them know they're not alone.

Call 1-877-785-2020 for SafeLink, the Massachusetts domestic violence hotline. You can find more domestic violence resources here.

This segment aired on April 13, 2020.


Shannon Dooling Investigative Reporter
Shannon Dooling was an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.



More from WBUR

Listen Live