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Agencies brace for possible uptick in domestic violence as COVID-19 pandemic sets in

The prolonged togetherness that many families are experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the general uncertainty of the times, could be a recipe for domestic violence incidents.

Leaders of the state's domestic violence support programs, including New London-based Safe Futures, aired their worries and needs during a conference call Friday morning with U.S. Sen Richard Blumenthal and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz.

"What we're hearing is people are just in fear," said Margaret Rosa, associate director of Safe Haven of Greater Waterbury. "They're feeling helpless about being stuck at home, either with an abuser or just being constantly barraged with contact with them."

As of Friday morning, the state's domestic violence shelters were at or near capacity, in-person support group meetings have been suspended due to social distancing protocols, and some potential victims who applied for restraining orders are not showing up for court hearings.

The reassuring message from the providers was that help is available around the clock. Those who need help can call the Safe Futures support line, (860) 701-6000, (888) 774-2900 or visit ConnecticutSafeConnect.

Safe Futures is adjusting to the new normal by reassigning advocates to the district's only open courthouse at 70 Huntington St., keeping in virtual contact with victims while making safety plans. The agency is working on installing a Plexiglas door at the entrance to its office on Jay Street, so walk-in clients can be assessed while observing social distancing. Some staff are working from home.

"Things change by the minute," Safe Futures Chief Executive Officer Katherine Verano said in an interview prior to the conference call. "But they (clients) need our support, so we're talking to them by phone, having them talk by computer and trying to get supplies."

The agency operates six residential sites, and was able to work with the Gemma E. Moran/United Way food bank to supply two weeks of backup food. Verano said children at one of the sites have flu-like symptoms and are self-isolating while awaiting COVID-19 test results. Another concern is that most offenders are being released on bond, court dates for those in the system have been continued because only arraignments (initial court appearances) are being held, and monitoring by the Department of Adult Probation is minimal.

Verano said she's hoping hearings for restraining orders can be conducted on line and that Safe Futures would like to be able to provide clients with laptops.

The agency's emergency shelter has capacity for 15 people and it currently is at 22, with some clients staying at hotels. Staff is making up packages of educational materials and toys for homebound children and trying to help with other needs, including transportation.

Many of the agencies have had to reschedule their major spring fundraisers and are exploring ways to conduct them virtually. Safe Futures' annual Light The Way breakfast, scheduled for April 24, has been rescheduled, tentatively, to June 3.

Blumenthal said the current aid package for COVID-19 expenses includes funding to assist local health departments and negotiations are ongoing for aid to nonprofit organizations, such as the 18 domestic violence services providers, along with small businesses.

"I know the levels of anxiety and fear have reached new heights in many households," he said on the conference call. "Tensions are likely to be higher than ever with the threat of this disease. Any household that has experienced domestic violence is particularly vulnerable at this point."

On Friday, six people charged with domestic violence offenses were arraigned at the New London court that is now handling cases that ordinarily would be heard at the Geographical Area courthouses in Norwich and New London. The number was low or normal, but the concern is that it could grow.

New London police Capt. Brian Wright said the department has not seen an uptick in domestic violence calls as of Friday afternoon.

"So far, so good, knock on wood," he said.

k.florin@theday.com

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