Local agencies concerned about unreported domestic violence cases during pandemic

In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and placed nearly every aspect of life on “pause,” counselors at The Retreat, an agency that comes to the aid of sexual and domestic abuse victims on the East End, were preparing for an influx of calls.

Many of those calls did not come, leading advocates to worry that victims have become even more isolated as a byproduct of the pandemic.

“We felt people weren’t able to call because they were trapped with their abuser,” Loretta Davis, executive director of The Retreat, said in an interview last Friday. “Home isn’t really safe.”

It’s that knowledge, Ms. Davis said, that led the organization to launch a new online live-chat option, in addition to counseling via telephone and Zoom. “We felt we had more to do,” she said, after seeing an initial drop off in calls. Ms. Davis said the chat capability includes an option to easily exit and automatically erases the messages to provide an added level of security.

As restrictions began to ease in May, however, Ms. Davis said she noticed an uptick in calls. On one particular day, a woman called three or four times. “She was able to lock herself in a room, in a shed. People could finally make that call,” Ms. Davis said.

Locally, police statistics also do not necessarily reflect the same sharp rise in domestic violence that has been documented at state and national levels since the crisis began. 

According to a report released last Thursday by Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller, total calls received by the department overall are down from 2019. Riverhead police responded to 63 domestic incidents in April 2020, compared to 58 in April 2019. In January of this year, Riverhead police received 80 domestic violence calls, the report said.

“Basically, we are down almost in everything except for domestic incidents and non-criminal incidents. Even domestics are not going up that much. We’re only up by five from the 2019 numbers,” Chief Hegermiller explained during a Riverhead Town Board work session last week. “Last month, the domestic incidents were down even more. They were down by 20 or so. So we’re in good shape. It has actually been a slow couple of months on that front,” he said.

In Southold, Police Chief Martin Flatley said, “Those calls are on the upswing. I’ve looked at [reports for March] but I think April will tell, when that comes in.” In March 2019 the department had 12 domestic calls; 15 were received in the same month this year, he said. 

“People are shuttered in their house with family members, or with other situations where there’s orders of protection in place,” Chief Flatley said. “But we haven’t got to the point where the numbers are up dramatically.”

Ms. Davis said it’s not surprising that calls to police were down, since an estimated 40% of domestic and sexual assault incidents go unreported. “We’re first responders, really, to this,” she said, adding that many survivors fear making even an anonymous phone call for help since abusers thrive on misinformation.

“ ‘Oh, The Retreat’s not open. If you go for help, you’ll get sick or I’ll go report you and you’ll be deported,’ ” Ms. Davis said, giving examples of how abusers manipulate. “Any kind of leverage that can be used.”

At last week’s work session, Riverhead Councilwoman Catherine Kent said she’d read that numbers for child abuse calls had also ticked down. “I think it’s possibly because they’re not getting reported, since they’re not in school,” she said.

Ms. Davis noted that teachers are considered mandatory reporters and she fears those numbers are also growing invisibly. The Retreat has also received a higher than usual volume of phone calls related to basic services, including finding food and shelter.

Advocates there, and with other agencies across Long Island, are now preparing for what could be a flood of calls as restrictions continue to be lifted.

“As things loosen up and people have a little more freedom and privacy, we do expect a huge surge,” Ms. Davis said. “We’re going to be a part of the recovery.”

According to Chief Hegermiller’s report, virtually all other crimes are down in Riverhead. Just seven arrests were reported in April 2020, down from 91 in April 2019. The chief also suggested that there has been a slight increase in opioid overdoses, which has also been reported regionally.