Amidst signs of a sharp increase in domestic abuse in Rhode Island, agencies are determined to ensure that victims receive the full range of support, including emergency shelter, online counselling and legal recourse – while making sure that health restrictions are respected.

“We’re concerned but we’re also prepared,” said Jessica Walsh, director of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) in Newport. “COVID-19 adds a layer that we have not had to deal with before, but it doesn’t change what we do. Victims need to know that we’re here and able to meet their needs. It’s more important now than ever.”

The WRC is one of five agencies that make up the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Together the agencies handled 15,623 calls in 2019, and assisted 10,124 victims of abuse. Four murders were linked to domestic abuse.

The Coalition expects to release data shortly, but all the signs point to a sharp increase. Newport police received reports of 15 cases of domestic abuse or disturbance between March 17 and April 10 compared to 10 cases over the same period in 2019, according to Lieutenant April Amaral, head of community policing at the Newport Police Department.

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Neil Steinberg, executive director of the Rhode Island Foundation, also acknowledged the rise in domestic abuse cases on a WUN podcast.

Governor Raimondo acknowledged the concern at her Thursday press conference and said that her team is preparing a “comprehensive plan” on domestic abuse. “It’s a problem. It’s a priority. And we’re on it,” she said.

Tonya Harris, Executive Director of the Coalition, predicts that any increase will fall hardest on minorities, people of color and vulnerable groups like the LGBTQ community, which traditionally suffer from higher rates of domestic abuse. Children are a particular concern. The Coalition assisted 601 children who witnessed abuse in 2019.

COVID-19 will add to the pressure because domestic abuse is “all about power and control,” said Ms. Harris. This will be more threatening at a time that families are cooped up and abusers are “watching all the time.”

Such conditions will also make it easier for an abuser to practice financial manipulation within a family, as unemployment soars. Ms. Harris said this could include preventing a partner from seeking work. “If the abuser is the only person with a paycheck coming in he or she has a lot more power,” she said.

Ms. Walsh, from the WRC in Newport, said that the lockdown will probably make it harder for victims to report abuse or get advice from friends.

One of the biggest challenges facing agencies is to ensure that victims can find a safe space, while at the same time ensuring their health and safety. 

WRC operates an emergency shelter at an undisclosed location, which remains open and is operating at full capacity. 

Ms. Walsh said that staff at the shelter are taking precautions and following guidelines for social distancing. Each family has a separate bathroom and takes turn to use the kitchen. But closing the shelter had not been considered, she said. “Now more than at any other time we need to create safe places.”

Victims can also opt to move into transitional housing, although Ms. Harris said this option was limited even before the pandemic because of a “bottleneck” in affordable housing in Rhode Island. “COVID-19 has merely exposed these issues that have always been here,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Face-to-face support has been replaced by remote counselling services using telehealth technologies. Each of the five Coalition members operates a hotline and the state also offers a round-the-clock chat feature and help line. The Coalition also maintains a team of abuse survivors to offer specialized advice.

Ms. Walsh and Ms. Harris warned that abusers should not expect to escape the law just because the Newport court is currently closed. Domestic violence cases are still being heard at two courts. Coalition advocates helped victims to seek 2,969 restraining orders in 2019.

Ms. Harris also dismissed any suggestion that abusers should be treated with greater understanding given that they too may be under pressure. “Stress should never be a reason for someone to abuse another person,” she said. “Absolutely not!”

The following resources are offered to victims of domestic abuse by the State and Rhode Island Coalition against Domestic Violence:

  • Call or text 911 with any suspicions and include an address.
  • For the state-wide help line call 1 800 494 8100; visit www.ricadv.org or www.helplineri.com for the online chat feature.
  • For domestic abuse support within the WRC area (including Aquidneck Island) call 401 846 5263. For emergency shelter information call 1 866 236 2474 or email info@wrcnbc.org.

For information about domestic abuse resources download Peace at Home, a publication of the Coalition.