Stay-at-home orders now in effect Islandwide are meant to keep people safe and slow the spread of the pandemic. But the same measures meant to protect pose an increased risk for people stuck at home with a physically or emotionally abusive partner.

“For a lot of survivors, being home can be more dangerous,” said Jennifer Neary, director of Connect to End Violence, the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services domestic violence prevention program.

“A lot of people are out of work, facing financial difficulties and isolated. These things don’t cause domestic violence, but they are contributing factors,” she said.

Since the outbreak began last month, the Dukes County communications center reports that emergency call volume has dropped by about 10 per cent overall, while calls for domestic disturbances have remained steady. And some police departments are reporting an increase.

Edgartown police chief Bruce McNamee said his department has seen a 42 per cent increase in domestic violence calls compared with last year.

“Just the other night we had two domestic violence arrests in a single night, whereas we only had one arrest in the month of January,” the chief said. “It’s not an unimaginable jump, but it is a significant increase.” He continued:

“There are a number of stresses people have in their lives that they didn’t have before. Compound that with the isolation of being home and the anxiety of getting disease.

“In no way would I be making an excuse for an abuser. But the situation is a recipe for domestic violence.”

Chief McNamee recently partnered with Ms. Neary to produce a public service video about domestic violence that is posted on the police department website.

Tisbury police Sgt. Max Sherman, who has trained with Connect to End Violence, said his department too has seen an increase. He said calls have ranged from verbal disputes to domestic assaults that end in arrest. He said as people spend more time in close quarters with an abusive partner, the potential for physical violence can escalate.

“There is a slight uptick in disputes rather than serious domestic violence,” Sergeant Sherman said. “Unfortunately, the situation builds off itself. It’s a cycle. Each time around, it can progress . . . Without a break for work or school, when they’re home all day, the severity can get worse.”

Ms. Neary said the majority of domestic violence goes unreported to the police because victims fear for their safety. And she said emotional violence is just as prevalent as physical violence.

She said home isolation, while vital to prevent the spread of coronavirus, has given abusers more power. Even non-abusive relationships are experiencing stress, she said.

Ms. Neary and police are working to put the word out that help is there for people who need it.

There are no shelters on the Island for victims of domestic abuse. Ms. Neary said some off-Island shelter networks have limited capacity due to social distancing protocols during the pandemic, but some are still accepting residents. She said the crisis has made it is more difficult for survivors to spend the night at a friend’s house if they need to escape a violent situation.

Her agency is still operating its 24/7 crisis hotline number (508-696-7233). All services are free and confidential.

Other services have moved online. Group counseling sessions are now held through Zoom. Court advocacy programs, where members help survivors navigate restraining orders and harassment charges, are available to offer support over the phone. Routine check-ins, to help prepare survivors with a safety evacuation plan, are also being done by phone.

It adds up to challenges on both sides.

“The process can already be overwhelming for [survivors] when we are there in person,” said Isadora Brito, lead court advocate at Connect. “When you can’t have that interaction, when they can’t see your face to know they are not alone . . . It’s definitely a harder process.”

Ms. Brito is also a translator. She said the new restrictions pose added challenges to non-English speakers, some of whom are concerned seeking support could jeopardize their immigration status. She ensures that citizenship status would be confidential, and that anyone seeking support can remain anonymous.

For police too, new protocols to protect officers from exposure to infection have affected how domestic disturbances are being handled.

“As much as we can, we are talking to people on the font stoop and not going inside,” Chief McNamee said. “[But] this is one of those calls there is no way around not going into a home.” He added:

“Every chief on the Island would say domestic assault is the one call that has us all worried while this is going on. Outside of the severity of the case itself, it could sap our department . . . if there is an exposure.”

Meanwhile, April is sexual assault awareness month, when traditionally events are held to raise awareness about sexual assault and domestic violence. On the Vineyard that includes the walk and seawall demonstration, when men stand up against domestic violence and assault.

This year instead of walks and fundraisers, Connect is hosting a 30-day challenge on Facebook.

Ms. Brito said her biggest concern is reaching people in need who might not know the hotline and other resources are still available.

“We have a plan in motion for reaching out to survivors, checking in, safety planning and preparing,” she said. “Our main message at this time is just to keep trying to let people know that services are still available.”

Connect to End Violence counselors are available 24 hours a day through their crisis hotline: 508-696-7233. All services are free and confidential.