The call came in on a beautiful Monday, from inside a locked room. “I know I can’t leave right now,” the woman whispered. “But I had to talk to somebody.”
Her hushed plea, quick and desperate, was that of a domestic violence survivor, trapped in her home on the East End and forced to shelter with her abuser — a situation that can already feel impossible to leave, let alone against the backdrop of a pandemic.
Answered by the calm support of Loretta Davis on the other end, the call abruptly ended, as is common in dangerous households permeated by control, possessiveness and violence.
But uncommon was the day itself, explained the executive director of The Retreat, an East Hampton-based safe haven for victims of domestic abuse since 1987. This call was not the first, or the last, of what would be many on May 4 — marking the first dramatic surge of emergency hotline activity since the start of COVID-19’s local impact.
Her agency wasn’t alone. When Ms. Davis reached out to the executive directors of the four other domestic violence agencies on Long Island, they reported the same uptick — a trend that has only continued.
“I was startled, and we’re not startled by very much,” Ms. Davis said. “Every single agency on that Monday, which was a nice day after a somewhat nice weekend and the temperature went up, we all got those calls. We knew it had been there, and it can’t be coincidental that five agencies got more calls than usual.”
In early April, New York State Police reported a 15- to 20-percent jump in domestic violence calls statewide, but East End numbers did not reflect that same increase. The agencies suspect that many survivors did not have the privacy to call or text for help until recently, due to more relaxed stay-at-home mandates, a return to work for some, and nicer weather for all, giving reason for both abusers and victims to leave the house.
“Everything you read in the news is like, ‘Oh my God, there’s so much domestic violence and people are isolated,’ while all five of our agencies — as well as in New York and most agencies in the city — we were getting the same amount of calls,” Ms. Davis said. “We weren’t getting more calls, and we’re like, ‘What are they talking about?’ And I think it was people couldn’t reach out. But we were ready for them.”
On May 4, The Retreat fielded double the number of calls it typically receives per day, which, with about 3,400 calls per year, shakes out to about 10 — typically comprised of both new and old clients.
On this particular Monday, it was all new clients, Ms. Davis said.
For months, all five of the Long Island agencies have anticipated this increase as survivors spend longer at home, where social distancing practices keep friends and family, who can serve as a protective shield, out of reach. And while experts have warned that the strains of the coronavirus pandemic could lead to more frequent and intense incidents of domestic violence, Dolores Kordon, executive director of Brighter Tomorrows in Shirley, balks at this reasoning.
“This is a problem every day of the year, and people don’t abuse other people because they’re stressed about a certain situation,” she said. “They do it because we live in a patriarchal society and that’s what happens. I worry about this national narrative that somehow this has to do with the pandemic, which it’s a national crisis that happens every day.”
But the pandemic has certainly elevated stress levels, Ms. Kordon agreed, and along with the uptick in calls has come an escalated level of violence — including strangulation, stabbing and bullying with box cutters and guns, going so far as to purposely shoot and miss.
Abusers have also threatened to burn the family’s house down during this time, and seriously harm their children, all the while spewing misinformation. According to Ms. Davis, this can take on different forms, including “No one can help you, everything’s closed,” “If you call someone, I’m gonna beat you up and you’re gonna go to the hospital, and then you’re gonna get sick,” and, “You’re undocumented. If you do anything, you’re gonna get deported.”
“Some of these situations are pretty horrendous,” Ms. Davis said. “They’re persisting, but it’s pretty dire situations. People should know that we are still open, remotely. And whether you’re documented or undocumented, you get our services — and they’re free.”
Ms. Kordon echoed the same sentiment. “People in the domestic violence field are still working every day, and that if they reach out to us, they will get assistance — and they don’t have to stay in any situation, even in these difficult times,” she said. “There’s still help available. We understand that no matter what’s going on in the world, abuse still goes on. Unfortunately, this kind of thing never takes a break, but neither do the people that do this work.”
While the Long Island agencies typically serve lower-income, at-risk survivors, domestic violence is not isolated to vulnerable populations, emphasized Reina Schiffrin, executive director of the Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk in Islandia.
“People think of the Hamptons and of wealth, but domestic violence has nothing to do with your financial status,” said Ms. Schiffrin, who lives in Hampton Bays. “Of course, we see more people probably of color and poverty, it’s just the way of the world — they don’t have the resources I might have — but people shouldn’t be surprised because it’s the Hamptons. It’s definitely happening out here. Abuse is not about economic status.”
Domestic violence is also not restricted to spousal abuse. Ms. Schiffrin, whose agency does serve some East End residents, has also seen an uptick in elder abuse during the pandemic.
“Someone chatted to me two nights ago, a woman who said her son was not only emotionally abusive, he now had her in a chokehold and was physically abusive,” she said. “We were helping her get an order of protection from him, but if we did, his children — her grandchildren — would have to leave, too. So here’s this grandmother, an elderly woman put in this horrible position, who had nowhere to go, and she was sleeping in her car because of it.”
While some survivors are calling to seek shelter, the executive directors report an overall reluctance to stay at group homes, out of fear of contracting COVID-19. “The shelters are still open and they’re safe,” Ms. Schiffrin said. “None of them have had COVID-positive residents, so they’re doing a fantastic job and they shouldn’t be afraid to do that.”
In addition to available shelters, agencies are still offering survivors assistance, including 24-hour hotlines and online chats, education material, safety planning guidelines, and counseling, despite headquarters being physically closed. At The Retreat, the two emergency hotlines have not once gone unanswered since the pandemic began, reported Ms. Davis, though she is considering bringing on additional support.
“We’re looking at, ‘Are we prepared for this surge?’” she said. “I’m thinking that we may increase our counselors a little bit — that’s a financial thing — but I think we may need more counselors. Our advocates are still going to court. They go online, they see the judge and they get protective orders. That’s still available even though court is closed.”
Attorney Larry Tuthill, who has represented The Retreat’s clients for over 20 years through Nassau Suffolk Law Services, said the court closures will eventually present its own series of issues, including an onslaught of the non-emergency cases that the judges are not currently hearing, such as custody and child support matters.
Orders of protection remain the priority, he said, and for good reason. He anticipates that this uptick is only the beginning.
“We do expect, during this pandemic, more calls in regards to domestic violence as the stresses go on: the financial stress, the medical stress, the stress of families losing loved ones, being forced to stay in their houses,” he said. “That contributes to stresses in the family and also contributes to domestic violence. We believe we will see that increase throughout the year and throughout the pandemic.”
All three executive directors urge survivors to formulate a safety plan, with which all five agencies can assist. This can include code words that, when said aloud or texted to a loved one, will signal a response, such as calling the police, Ms. Schiffrin explained.
“And as a bystander, anything you see, always over-report,” she said. “I know it’s hard. You don’t want to do that to a neighbor. It sounds terrible, but if you see something going on, it’s much better to over-report. Let the professionals decide, but at least you did your job. Don’t ignore. If you see the guy across the street pushing his wife around a little bit, you usually don’t want to get involved. But guess what? You need to get involved. It’s somebody’s life.”
For victims suffering from domestic violence, there is always a way out, said Ms. Davis, who encourages survivors to call The Retreat’s 24-hour hotline at 631-329-2200, or use the online chat service by visiting theretreatinc.org. To reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline, call 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522.
“There is help out there and you need hope. You need that hope to go on, we all do — at least that’s how I look at it,” she said. “There’s help. There is a place where you can text, or you can chat, or you can call, and there are people who can help, even if you are isolated.
“That one caller who called in from a locked room, she didn’t want any services at this point. She just wanted to make sure somebody was out there. Hopefully, she’ll call back,” she continued. “People are taking risks. They’re going to their garages, into locked rooms and calling. They’re whispering, but they’re really screaming for help.”
Red Flags: How to Know if Your Spouse is Abusive
Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviors in which one person uses or threatens physical, sexual, verbal and/or emotional abuse in order to obtain and maintain control over his or her partner.
The following checklist can help you decide if you, or someone you know, is being abused:
- Has your partner ever made you feel helpless, trapped, or alone?
- Does your partner tell you not to see family or friends? Do you feel isolated?
- Do you find yourself making excuses for your partner’s behavior? Does your partner have trouble accepting responsibility for their behavior?
- Does your partner embarrass or humiliate you in front of others?
- Does your partner tell you jealousy is a sign of love?
- Does your partner want to know where you are at all times? Are you accused of affairs when they cannot account for your time?
- Do you feel afraid to disagree with them?
- Does your partner anger easily when using drugs or alcohol?
- Does your partner destroy your personal property?
- Does your partner limit your access to money and credit cards? Or not allow you to work?
- Does your partner force or manipulate you into having sex, or sabotage your birth control?
- Does your partner threaten to have you deported, or threaten to take your children away?
- Does your partner threaten or harm you, your children or pets?
- Do you fear going home?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may be a victim of domestic violence. One in three women, and one in four men, will experience domestic abuse in their lifetimes. You are not to blame — and you are not alone. Help is available.
How to Leave an Abusive Relationship During a Pandemic
If you suspect you are in an abusive relationship, there are safety measures you can take before leaving your abuser.
Make copies of your birth certificate, your passport or green card, bank books and banking information, insurance papers, your lease agreement or mortgage payment book, important addresses and telephone numbers, and, if applicable, welfare identification and your children’s medical and school records.
Memorize emergency phone numbers and teach them to your children, as well as how to dial 911. Open your own bank account and P.O. Box. Do your best to stay in touch with friends, even if you want to be left alone, and tell trusted neighbors about the situation.
Remove all guns, ammunition, knives and any other weapons from your home, or make them inaccessible, and rehearse your escape plan until you know it by heart.
“It’s very hard to think things through when you’re in this situation, and there are things that you can do to maximize your chances of getting out safely,” explained Dolores Kordon, executive director of Brighter Tomorrows in Shirley.
Next, consult with a domestic violence agency to devise an escape or safety plan, which may look like this:
- Use a code word, or signal, to alert your family member or friend that you want the police called.
- If possible, grab your pre-packed bag for emergencies, which should include an extra set of clothing for you and any children, a prepaid cell phone, extra money, a copy of your safety plan, any prescribed medications, and an extra set of car keys.
- Move to a safe area of your home where there is an escape route and no potential weapons.
- If the abuser becomes violent and you cannot leave your home, make yourself physically smaller by curling into a ball, and cover your head and face with your hands.
- Once you’re safely away from the abuser, turn off the location services on your phone.
- Know three places you can go after you have left the abuser.
“Typically we encourage clients to call our hotline so they can speak with our hotline worker, an advocate, or a counselor regarding safety planning,” said Andrea Wisse, director of counseling at Brighter Tomorrows. “We do this because each situation is different and the safety of each individual client is always considered when making a safety plan.”
After you have left your abuser, and if you are still living at home, change the locks on the doors and install as many security features as possible. These could include a security alarm system, outside sensor lights, smoke detectors, metal doors and gates. Tell your neighbors that your abuser is not welcome on the premises, and ask them to call the police if they see someone loitering around the property.
Obtain an order of protection and keep it on you at all times, as well as in your car, your home, with friends and family, and with your children’s school and care providers. Make sure they know who does and does not have permission to pick them up.
If necessary, change your work hours and let your coworkers know about the situation, if you feel comfortable. As best as possible, avoid the stores, banks and businesses you used when you were living with the abuser. And form a network to be there for you when you need them, whether that’s a support group or counseling.
- If you or a loved one needs help, the following resources are also available:
- The Retreat’s 24-Hour Hotline: 631-329-2200 and through chat at theretreatinc.org
- Brighter Tomorrows’ 24-Hour Hotline: 631-395-1800 and through chat at brightertomorrowsinc.org
- Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk’s 24-Hour Hotline: 631-360-3606 and through chat at vibs.org
- The National Domestic Violence 24-Hour Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 and through chat at thehotline.org, or text LOVEIS to 22522
- The National Sexual Assault 24-Hour Hotline: 1-800-656-4673 and through chat at rainn.org
- The StrongHearts Native Helpline for domestic/sexual violence is available from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., specifically for Native communities: 1−844-762-8483
- The Trans LifeLine for peer support is available from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m.: 1-877-565-8860
Contributed to first place Writer of the Year award, New York Press Association, 2020
Judge’s comments: “This writer handled a diverse set of topics beautifully, mixing an investigative approach with rich storytelling and a human touch to produce in-depth news features with high community impact and interest. The writer understands that all great stories, though built on solid foundational facts and data, are about people’s experiences – their joys and sorrows, their fears and triumphs.”