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Domestic violence programs see spike in calls

Advocates expect more people to reach out for help as some key in-person services resume.

SANFORD, Maine — Two of Southern Maine's largest domestic violence programs are seeing a spike in calls to 24-hour helplines in the past two months.

Through These Doors and Caring Unlimited, organizations that offer programs for victims of domestic violence, say calls are up 40 to 50 percent compared to this time last year 

That's a big change from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Advocates expect more people to reach out for help as some key in-person services resume. 

"I have been the one answering the helpline and I have been on it non stop since 9 o'clock this morning," Susan Giambalvo, Executive Director of Caring Unlimited, said. Caring Unlimited is York County's Domestic Violence Resource Center.

The non-profit domestic violence program runs a crisis shelter and provides resources to about 2000 people in York County each year. 

The program is experiencing a surge in calls to its 24-hour helpline after a steep drop in the first few months of the pandemic. 

RELATED: Funds for domestic violence under LePage spent elsewhere

Giambalvo says a number of victims didn't have the privacy to reach out while in lockdown with their abusers. Some who suffered physical abuse chose not to call 911.

"They were worried because that might expose them to COVID," Giambalvo said. 

There were also reports that abusers used that very fear as a tactic to control their victims.

"A lot of threatening to expose the person to COVID the abuser would go intentionally and bring it back," Giambalvo said. 

Victims were being terrorized about the pandemic in other ways.

"They would hold that over their heads and force them to wash their hands repeatedly."

Rebecca Hobbs is the Executive Director of  Through These Doors, a Domestic Violence Resource Center serving nearly four thousand people in Cumberland County.

The center operates a 24-hour helpline, provides emergency shelter, residential services, education and legal advocacy programs, and provides other resources. Like Caring Unlimited, calls are up more than 40 percent compared to this time last year. 

As restrictions against the virus are lifting, people are returning to work—victims are more willing to reach out for help and carry out their safety plans which include leaving an abusive relationship.

"We never stopped providing shelter, in fact we are providing more than ever, we are sheltering 75 percent more people this year than last year," Hobbs said.

Thanks to the generosity of donors, both programs have secured protective equipment which is allowing advocates to resuming meeting with victims one-on-one again with social distancing. They want victims to know domestic violence programs never stopped and are available throughout the state.

There is a statewide number provided by the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence that will connect callers with domestic violence programs in their local area. That number is 1-866-834-HELP.

RELATED: Boosting violence survivors' bank accounts and self-esteem

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At NEWS CENTER Maine, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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