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The ugly reality: domestic violence incidents increasing during coronavirus crisis

New London — The staff at Safe Futures knew the risks to victims of domestic violence were serious when the coronavirus pandemic set in last month and people were told to stay at home.

Now they know the ugly reality. 

In the past three weeks, Safe Futures Chief Executive Officer Katherine Verano said a New London woman was viciously stabbed by a former boyfriend who had been stalking her and previously had threatened to kill her. A client committed suicide, and another overdosed and died, Verano said.

One abuser was charged with a third violation of a protective order, which Verano said is a sign that violence is escalating, but was not held on a high bond since the prisons are trying to reduce their population to prevent the spread of the virus. Even in the town's more rural areas, where reports of domestic violence incidents tend to be fewer, police who are interviewing victims to determine whether they are at risk of being killed are reporting a rise in potentially lethal cases.

"Our staff is traumatized, on top of all this trauma, because we feel so helpless," Verano said in a phone interview Wednesday morning. "We just want people to know there's help out there." 

Those who need help can call the Safe Futures support line, (860) 701-6000, (888) 774-2900 or visit ConnecticutSafeConnect. The  agency's office at 16 Jay St., New London, is open with extra safety precautions in place, and victims advocates continue to work in the court system.

The New London stabbing victim underwent emergency surgery for a deep wound to the upper torso, and the man accused of attacking her, Kyle McKinnon, 27, of 32 Belden St., is being held in lieu of $750,000 bond at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution on charges of attempted murder, carrying a dangerous weapon and breach of peace.

Calls to Safe Futures' domestic violence hotlines have increased by 20% since the pandemic started, according to Verano. Calls to the statewide SafeConnect hotline increased by seven percent between February and March as reported by the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence on April 9. Nationally,domestic violence incidents are up by 35%, Verano said. She noted a higher level of increase is possible in Connecticut, which has not been under a stay-at-home order as long as other parts of the country. Many clients have been laid off, have not yet received unemployment compensation and are at home with their children, she said.

"I don't know what to expect, but it's not going to be good," Verano said.

In New London, police Capt. Brian Wright said officers responded to 97 domestic violence incidents between March 1 and April 15, compared to 67 incidents during the same period last year. The increased calls represent about a 33 percent increase.

"The stress of what's going on has a part to play, with concerns about employment and finances," he said. "In many instances, there's nowhere for people to go for release."

On Wednesday, Connecticut's U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy joined a bipartisan group of 39 senators to request approximately $430 million in emergency funding for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The senators wrote that the recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act provided $47 million but did not include any additional support for sexual assault or domestic violence-related programs funded through the Department of Justice.

The funding is crucial at a time when abusers are isolating their victims, withholding financial resources and refusing medical aid, sexual assault crisis hotlines are seeing an increase in calls, and local law enforcement agencies are receiving an increased number of domestic violence-related calls, the senators added.

"These programs deliver essential support that is particularly needed at this time, including support for sexual assault service providers, law enforcement, and transitional housing programs, as well as for organizations that address the needs of communities of color and underserved populations," the senators wrote.

Locally, Verano said Safe Futures has applied for grants through the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut and United Way of Southeastern Connecticut and has worked with the statewide Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence to receive funding for basic needs, including hotel rooms when shelters are overflowing, and food.

Safe Futures currently has 40 families living in its residential programs. Fortunately, Verano said, the agency's community partners have been eager to help. Michael Buscetto, owner of Filomena's restaurant in Waterford, provided the agency's shelter residents with homemade meals "from soup to nuts" one day last week, and the next day the 54 children in the agency's care got care packages containing toys, crafts and writing materials.

Local resident Nancy Butler and other members of the community have been making masks and volunteering their services.

Safe Futures has been reaching out to victims who are trapped at home and conducting safety planning to the best of their ability.

Verano said one client told the staff, "I have to be strategic about when I leave, because he's probably going to kill me when I do. Now that he's home, he's watching me like a hawk. I can't pack my things or make calls, only when he's sleeping and in the shower."

k.florin@theday.com

Editor's Note: This edition clarifies the increase in hotline calls to New London-based Safe Futures, and to the statewide umbrella organization, Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

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