News that domestic violence murders in Massachusetts are down threatens to overshadow the fact that there is a deepening domestic abuse crisis in the state and across the country. As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into 2021, more must be done to help victims escape dangerous situations. One way is to make it easier for victims to file abuse reports or talk to emergency workers online.
There were seven homicides attributed to domestic violence last year, according to a new report by the state’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team. That’s down from 28 murders in 2019, and 15 the year before. While the authors of the report note there is “no research to explain the significant decrease,” local advocates note the coronavirus pandemic has cut off many victims from friends, family and professional help.
Sara Stanley, executive director of Healing Abuse Working for Change in Salem, said the pandemic has also meant many victims aren’t leaving their abusers -- a decision that often leads to violence.
Reporting abuse has become more difficult. COVID-19 restrictions make it next-to-impossible to leave the house without attracting notice, and cramped quarters make it difficult to make a private phone call.
And, as a team of doctors writing in the New England Journal of Medicine this fall noted, very few local police departments are equipped to help victims online.
“The way in which police reports can be filed varies among precincts, with some offering online options and others requiring in-person visits,” the doctors wrote in their Sept. 16 essay. A quick survey of police websites show that few departments in the region, if any, allow victims to make reports online. Most require visits or a call. Andover police invite crime victims to make reports on the department's website but only if there are no known suspects.
“The procedure for seeking restraining orders in local courts has also been onerous during the pandemic,” the doctors wrote. “The lack of a coherent and consistent process for reporting abuse can be discouraging for people seeking help through the legal system.”
Offering online access to police is an attainable goal. After a spike in calls to a state-run domestic abuse hotline, for example, New York expanded its service from phone calls and texts to a secure chat on a state-run website.
Making it easier for victims to file abuse reports online costs money, as police departments will need updated software and training. But it’s an outlay Gov. Charlie Baker and state lawmakers must consider as the new legislative session begins and budget season heats up.