Domestic Violence, Abuse Cases Rise

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COURT HOUSE – The state’s COVID-19 hotline isn’t the only hotline with rising callers. 

Calls to the Coalition Against Rape & Abuse Inc. (CARA) jumped 10% in the first week that COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were issued. While calls have stabilized, counselors are having more sessions than ever before.

Additionally, more people are using their community food bank.

“I think people are afraid,” said Claire Galiano, CARA executive director. “I’ve told my staff to put in the extra hours as they have to, to be there for them (callers). We are not shutting down.”

Since March 15, when Cape May County stay-at-home orders were declared, Galiano said counselors have been working remotely and using online resources and tools to stay in touch with clients and help those who call. During that first week, she said they received 155 additional calls for sexual and domestic abuse. Normally, during a month, they receive about 500 calls on their hotline (1-877-294-2272) and local numbers (1-609-522-6489).

“This lockdown has been very hard on people,” she said. “That first week when our numbers jumped, I think people were fearful of what was going to happen; a lot of people were out of jobs. It was very concerning.”

The domestic violence cases who have come to the shelter in the past weeks are also “more serious,” she noted. “People are so isolated.” It’s the isolation that has the county Prosecutor’s Office concerned since family, friends, co-workers and school staff might have helped identify potential victims or abusers in the past.

“We’re worried that domestic and child abuse might be under-reported,” said Paul Skill, chief of county detectives, Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office. “We saw some increased activity that first week, as well, but I’m not aware of any arrests in the county for domestic violence in the last two or three weeks (as of April 7).”

With increased stress at home due to the stay-at-home order, loss of employment and other factors, Skill noted the department is concerned.

“I know it might be harder to report or call for help because everyone is at home,” Skill said, “but you should know that the services are still available if you need them. We are still issuing temporary restraining orders, we are still responding to calls. Whether you are an abuser or victim, know the services are available. Reach out.”

If a victim and/or family comes for help, Galiano said the clients and staff are practicing social distancing and following all medical and health protocols.

“Some of our areas are communal, so we are allowing one person to use the kitchen or living room area, for example, then we wipe it down and wait 30 minutes before the next person goes in,” she explained.

Staff haven't been laid off from the shelter, although some are on administrative leave. Galiano said the agency had an emergency preparedness plan to help them anticipate how they would continue to operate in new circumstances.

“We are here 24/7,” Galiano stressed.

As stay-at-home orders continue, Galiano urged those facing domestic or sexual abuse to have “a safe word between them and their children, so if your children hear you use that word, they know to call 911. Have your safety plan, so if you need to get out, you can,” she said.

In addition to the counseling services, CARA continues to operate a food pantry five days a week for the community. Clients can call the agency, and a bag will be prepared and delivered curbside.

“Numbers there have been pretty steady, but they are a little higher than in the past,” she said, “not substantially higher though.”

To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com.