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Coronavirus precautions can heighten risk of domestic abuse

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PITTSFIELD — Those who are victims of domestic violence, or at risk of becoming one, might be at even higher risk as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, local advocates say.

The closing of schools, day care facilities and workplaces, along with the restriction of physical access to courthouses and police stations, all can make it more difficult for those in need of assistance to find it, according to Janis Broderick, executive director of the Elizabeth Freeman Center in Pittsfield, which provides services to the victims of domestic violence.Added stress, social isolation, feeling cut off from support systems and being forced into close quarters are all factors that can aggravate already dangerous situations.

"People are being told to stay in their homes, but for so many in our community, homes are not safe," she said.

"We know from past disasters and reports from other countries who have had the same kind of social distancing shelter-at-home response that's necessary for COVID-19, we've seen increases in domestic violence because those are the very conditions that increase violence in our homes," Broderick said. "We are waiting for the dam to break."Indeed, Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn said recently that the department has seen a "concerning" rise in the number of domestic calls since the beginning of the pandemic response last month.

But, protection still is available for those in need of it.

Broderick said that while calls to police for service in domestic violence cases might be on the rise at the moment, she said the Elizabeth Freeman Center and other providers of assistance to assault victims have seen a decrease in calls for assistance, "which worries us immensely."

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She said the same types of issues that prevent people from calling for help during other types of natural disasters also are present during the current one.

"Folks suffering abuse or sexual violence have less access to help because they cannot call for help," she said. "They're afraid to call for help or because so many doors in the community have closed."

She emphasized that the Elizabeth Freeman Center still is open and accessible 24 hours a day through its toll-free hotline at 866 401-2425 and its website, elizabethfreemancenter.org.

The courts and police still are available for protective orders, Broderick said.

Hearings can be conducted by telephone or videoconferencing; if paperwork must be filled out in person, there are safe spaces with access to telephones inside the courthouse, and police departments can take requests for emergency orders when the courts aren't available.

"We are open, we are accessible, we can work with people who are deciding to stay in their homes or who are deciding to leave," Broderick said.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@berkshireeagle.com and at @BobDunn413 on Twitter.


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