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Cheeseman: Domestic violence an 'urgent' matter for special session

New London — Standing outside Safe Futures on Jay Street on Friday morning, state Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, announced she would be seeking at least $250,000 during the upcoming special legislative session to address increases in domestic violence incidents during the coronavirus pandemic.

Calling her proposal "Safe Haven," for Supply Additional Funds Enabling Help for All Victims Now, Cheeseman said at the very least, the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence needs the additional $250,000 to pay for hotel rooms for victims and their children. She said she's calling on her colleagues in Hartford to work with her during the session, which is expected to convene in early September. She anticipates full support from within southeastern Connecticut's delegation.

"This is a pressing and urgent need," Cheeseman said. "The money we spend now saves uncounted millions in the future and more importantly, saves lives now."

She commended the work of Gov. Ned Lamont and state officials to combat the coronavirus, but said she's been worried all along about unseen victims of domestic violence.

Statewide, calls to domestic violence hotlines have increased nearly 100%, from 17,000 in 2019 to 31,000 this year, and appeals for help via text messages have increased 282%, Cheeseman said.

She said the state still has $362 million in unspent federal CARES Act pandemic funding, and $544 million in unspent funds in its own biennial budget.

Katherine Verano, executive director of Safe Futures, a coalition member organization that serves 21 towns and cities in southeastern Connecticut, said that since March, the agency has seen increased numbers in strangulation and physical abuse cases due to isolation and substance use, job loss and lack of child care.

Safe Futures, which has an emergency shelter and transitional housing, has spent an additional $60,000 on hotel rooms since March. The organization has always turned to hotels when its housing is full, but the pandemic has increased the dependence on hotels due to social distancing requirements.

In 2019, the agency had 414 "bed nights" at area hotels, according to Verano. In 2020, so far, there have been 1,540 additional bed nights.

She said at one point during the pandemic, the agency was housing 41 families, and had 54 children in Safe Future facilities and hotels. The additional families being served required food and other items.

In her 26 years at the agency, Verano said she's never seen anything like the current situation. The agency is accustomed to working in crisis mode and has never closed. Early in the pandemic, Safe Futures installed Plexiglas doors that enabled victims to continue meeting with advocates face to face, and purchased laptops and cellphones to provide clients with access to virtual support meetings.

Though state courts have limited operations during the pandemic, domestic violence cases, which comprise 35% of criminal cases, are considered a priority and have continued to be heard.

Safe Futures has kept advocates in the court system throughout the pandemic. Verano said a newly implemented system that enables victims to apply for restraining orders virtually needs to be looked at and improved.

Previously known as the Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut, Safe Futures will celebrate its 45th year in operation in 2021. Domestic violence is not exclusive to women; Verano said 20% of Safe Futures' clients are men.

k.florin@theday.com

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