Victim advocates unsettled by drop in help hotline calls during stay-at-home order

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Advocates for victims of domestic violence are seeing a significant drop in the number of calls to help hotlines since the state mandated stay at home orders in mid-March. And they find that drop “unsettling.”

On Monday, Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said that overall 911 call volume has been down during the mandated isolation and that officials have not noticed an uptick in domestic violence during the stay-at-home period.

The Department of Public Safety’s new call volume dashboard which indicates the number and types of calls received by 911 operators. Courtesy Department of Public Safety

According to Schirling, his department is using a new dashboard to track call volume and types of calls and that this has shown a down turn of 20 to 30 percent across the board. A screenshot of the dashboard here shows the April 5 on the left of the screen, the same day in the previous week in the center and same day last year on the right.

Women’s Freedom Center advocate Shari, whose last name is being withheld due to safety concerns, tells The Telegraph that comparing the last two weeks of March this year with the same period last year, the center has received half the number of calls.

“The silence is unsettling,” says Shari, who explains that victims of domestic abuse have to “strategize time” to find a safe window in which to call, which is less possible if the abuser is around always around.  Shari also noted that phone technology can also make calling difficult and that some abusers have hacked into phones to know what calls are being made.

“If someone is stuck at home with their abuser, there’s not a lot of space to reach out and call,” says Betsy Kohl of WISE, which advocates for survivors of gender-based violence in the Upper Valley. Kohl says that WISE has added a chat capability to the landing page of its website. She noted that the number of calls WISE receives had fluctuated, but this past weekend had been busy.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling speaking at Monday’s press conference

State Police spokesman Adam Silverman told The Telegraph that any numbers he could provide regarding this would only reflect the calls to which  troopers responded. But he did note that in March 2019 there were 50 domestic assault arrests while in March 2020, there were 32.

Silverman cautioned that there are factors that  should also be considered when looking at the numbers including court closures and staffing issues. In other words, there may be additional arrests that haven’t been added to the system yet.

“We are working with our advocacy community to ensure that all the reporting channels and supports remain intact,” said Schirling.

“I want everyone to know that all of our 24/7 emergency services are still intact,” says Shari. “We can still shelter with safe-distancing. If someone can safely get to a phone, all of our services are available.”

Kohl agrees, saying that while WISE advocates are working remotely during the pandemic, “We are here.”

Are incidents of suicide rising?

While the call volume did not indicate a rise in domestic violence, Schirling said, “I was made aware just a short time ago that we have seen an uptick in suicides unfortunately … this is a difficult time for everyone and the pressure continues to mount as time goes by.” He noted that there are a number of hotline resources for suicide prevention and urged people who are in crisis to call them.

Asked if he had numbers on the increase in suicides, Schirling said: “Not yet, I’ve asked for that to be quantified over the next day or so and to begin tracking it more specifically in the dashboard.”

Resources available for domestic abuse help, suicide prevention

The Vermont Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence

Women’s Freedom Center  (802) 254-6954 or (800) 773-0689

WISE   (603) 448-5525 Toll free: (866) 348-9473

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline     (800)-273-8255

National Suicide Prevention Resource Center



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