The COVID-19 pandemic is making it harder to provide legal protection for victims of domestic abuse, even as cases of abuse have surged.

A Thursday press release from the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV) reported that the number of restraining orders issued against abusers during April 2020 fell by 46 percent over the same period in 2019.

At the same time, the release noted a 40 percent increase in calls to help lines and hotlines operated by the coalition’s five member agencies in April. Some 599 callers requested emergency shelter.

Agencies have been bracing for a surge of domestic abuse as couples that were already on the brink were subjected to the strains of shelter in place and barred from seeking support through friends, day care or school.

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“We were watching and hearing the reports. We knew this was coming,” said Jessica Walsh, Executive Director of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC), a RICADV member agency that covers nine Newport County cities and towns. 

Anticipating the surge, the agencies stepped up their ability to respond remotely by extending a state hotline while also offering chat lines through all five RICADV members. Many appeals had been coming in by email, said Walsh.

Restraining orders offer a legal remedy to victims wishing to separate from abusive partners. The number of orders granted by the Rhode Island courts fell from 375 in April 2019 to 204 last month according to Craig Berke, an administrator at the state judiciary offices in Providence.

Agencies and law enforcement officials contacted by WUN suggested that the decline has exposed the challenge of providing legal protection at a time when two of the state’s four district courts are closed and the physical movement of victims and abusers is sharply curtailed.

Walsh said her team at the WRC will help a caller fill in the paperwork and apply for an order but that the plaintiff must then appear in person before a judge. With the Newport district court closed victims must travel to the Kent County courthouse in Warwick, which is handling Newport cases during the lockdown.

WRC staff do what they can by providing remote support to plaintiffs at the Newport end. Officials from the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center – another member of the RICADV network – take over in Warwick. 

But it was never going to be easy for a victim to leave an abusive partner whose suspicions may be aroused for an entire day, said Walsh. “It’s an intimidating process even when it’s not a pandemic. COVID-19 has added additional layers of barriers,” she said.

There is, in addition, the fear that a judge would not issue an order, which might leave a victim open to reprisals when he or she returns home. If a restraining or no-contact order is issued, it is not clear where the suspect will go without violating the governor’s stay at home requirement and social distancing.

All of these factors will be weighed by a fearful victim trying to decide whether to seek legal protection, said agency officials. 

“Victims are always in a survival mode and trying to figure out where danger lies,” said Carmen Recalde-Russo, director of community engagement at RICADV. “I would not want to go to court, particularly when there’s a chance of getting sick.” 

The same concerns were echoed by Lieutenant April Amaral, the community police liaison officer at the Newport Police Department. Amaral said that between April 1 and May 27 Newport police responded to 16 cases involving domestic abuse. This was down from the 21 interventions during the same period last year, she said.

Amaral said the police are obliged to make an arrest if they find a probable cause of abuse. The perpetrator is then held in custody until a justice of the peace or judge can issue a no-contact order and set a date for a hearing, which can take several weeks. In the meantime, the suspect must stay away from the victim.

“Where would they go? I don’t know,” said Amaral. “It is hard to say how many cases have not been acted on. It might be from a fear of reprisal or insecurity about money if the abuser is earning and the victim is not working.”

The RICADV press release also expressed concern at the availability of emergency shelter and temporary housing for victims: “Finding a safe place to go has been a barrier for many victims and their children in their journey to safety, long before COVID-19, and these obstacles have been magnified by the current pandemic.”

Ms. Walsh said that Governor Raimondo had provided funds for emergency shelter and that this had doubled the number of available beds. But the press release from RICADV described this as a “temporary solution to a long-term problem.”

“We must invest in long-term solutions that support survivors and their children to find and maintain a healthy and safe home, including rental subsidies, emergency rent and mortgage assistance,” said the release.

Ms. Walsh declined to predict whether a loosening of the lockdown will lead to more complaints or restraining orders when the Newport court reopens on September 8. The important thing, she said, is that victims know that services will be available in the meantime. 

“We want them to know that we’re here for them,” she said.

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.

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Iain is a contributor to What's Up Newp and What's Up Rhode Island. Iain is currently the project coordinator of the Advocacy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO that serves the needs of civil society -- particularly community-based advocates for peace and human rights. He coordinates the Human Rights Forum partnership between ISIM and the Advocacy Project and teaches as an Adjunt Professor in the Master of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown He is also author of a book about the disappearances in Argentina and presenter of several BBC documentaries. In 1992 he served as a spokesperson for the UNHCR operation in Cambodia, and in 1994 as spokesperson for the UN humanitarian operation in Haiti. He served as a Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace (1996/7). Between 1997 and 2000, he conducted several evaluation missions to Rwanda and Bosnia for USAID and UNHCR. He has also served as special assistant to the Special Representative of the UN Human Rights Commission on Rwanda. He was the Geneva-based correspondent for the London Guardian and International Herald Tribune between 1976 and 1987.