REGION — Domestic abuse victims face unique challenges, particularly in rural areas such as Franklin and Androscoggin counties. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a time defined by the act of staying at home and feelings of isolation, those challenges have been further exacerbated.

Advocates say the isolating conditions of the pandemic made for increased risk of domestic abuse incidents, defined as “a pattern of coercive behavior in which one person attempts to control another through threats or actual use of physical violence, sexual assault, and verbal or psychological abuse.”

A systematic review on “Domestic Violence During COVID-19” published in February 2021 by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found that “domestic violence incidents in the U.S. increased by 8.1% following the imposition of stay-at-home orders.”

Though domestic violence incidents increased, the very beginning of the pandemic told another story for domestic-abuse help lines.

There was a time at the very beginning of the pandemic…that was extremely terrifying because help lines across the state just went quiet. No one was calling in,” said Regina Rooney, Education & Communication Director at the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence (MCEDV). “In that initial period in the spring of 2020 where everyone went on lockdown and there were stay at home orders, people did have a harder time reaching out.”

Safe Voices, a domestic violence resource center serving Franklin, Androscoggin, and Oxford counties found that 64% of domestic abuse survivors they serve felt the “pandemic impacted” them and their “safety.” Sixty-one percent also reported “elevated safety concerns due to COVID social-distancing requirements.”


Rooney said that within a month, when “people started to adjust,” survivors resumed calling in to helplines across Maine. Once those calls resumed, the domestic violence resource centers that MCEDV supports saw a 24% increase in “phone calls with survivors” and a 22% increase in “time spent on helpline calls” for 2020. MCEDV’s resource centers went on to help 12,516 people statewide, according to MCEDV’s 2020 annual report.

According to Elise Johansen, Executive Director of Safe Voices, around 1,000 of those survivors came from Franklin, Androscoggin, and Oxford counties.

Without an isolating pandemic, domestic abuse survivors already face distinct challenges in rural parts of the state like Androscoggin and Franklin, said Rooney. These challenges include “living far from supportive services,” “living physically far from other people … that you can run to for help,” a lack of public transportation and a lack of affordable housing.

“It’s not that those challenges don’t exist for people who live in more populous areas but they play out in particular ways in rural communities,” Rooney said.

The pandemic further exacerbated these hurdles and brought about new ones. Abusers are “very creative” and “will use everything and anything they can to assert power and control over a victim and COVID was no different,” Johansen said.

Because of stay-at-home orders and job loss across many industries, Johansen said “we were seeing abusers home more often, which gave them more opportunity to be abusive.”


The pandemic also caused a “backlog of court cases” which put many family-matters cases and divorce proceedings on hold. The Sun Journal reported in November 2020 that there was a “staggering” backlog of court cases in Maine. As a result, civil cases took the backseat while the courts focused on felony criminal cases.

Johansen also heard from survivors whose abusers took advantage of the stay-at-home order to violate custody agreements and refuse to transfer custody of children back to the survivor.

“In reality there was an order in place for visitation and it was being used as a way to assert power and control and to be abusive as opposed to really intending to keep the child safe,” Johansen said.

In the face of these adversities, advocates have spent the past year finding innovative solutions to new challenges and pre-existing challenges intensified by the pandemic.

“When COVID first happened we were so concerned that we would not be able to comprehensively provide support to survivors and we were,” Johansen said.

Safe Voices promptly created virtual support groups (for the first time in the organization’s history), increased online chat hours, worked with the courts to provide virtual advocacy to survivors in the court process, provided gas cards and grocery cards via no-contact deliveries, and continued working with law enforcement and child-protective services. For their staff, Safe Voices quickly transitioned to remote work, ensuring that the format with which they helped survivors remained “quiet and confidential.”


Safe Voices also continued sheltering people in their two Androscoggin-County shelters at a time when many shelters were faced with uncertainty about how to carry on safely during the pandemic.

“There’s so many really wonderful things that I can say about our staff and the resiliency of survivors. The one thing that stands out the most is their ability to creatively problem solve,” Johansen said. Safe Voices staff and survivors came together during the pandemic to talk “about what’s going on, what are their needs, what is their end goal” and ultimately, “really creatively overcome hurdles.”

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reported in 2015 that one in three women and one in four men in the US have experienced domestic abuse at some point in their life. Most people know someone who is actively being abused, whether or not one is aware of that abuse. Thus, readers also have a chance to positively impact the survivors in their lives.

Both Johansen and Rooney spoke of two ways an individual can help the survivors in their lives: by being a supportive source that someone can turn to for help and by calling out and condemning abuse when they witness it.

We have a responsibility to also show those folks that they need to treat their partners with respect and kindness and basic decency and we’re not going to accept anything less from them,” Rooney said.

If there’s someone else in their life that they see using tactics of abuse, to talk to them about it. This is not the victim’s problem to make go away,” Johansen echoed. She also recommended keeping the Safe Voices helpline in your phone and referring survivors to them or other domestic violence resource centers.

The Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence has a statewide helpline at 1-866-834-HELP. Survivors who are deaf or hard of hearing can contact a special helpline at 1-800-473-1220. Safe Voices can be contacted via their helpline at 1-800-559-2927. They also have offices in Farmington, South Paris, and Rumford. More information on getting help and an online chat service can be found on their website,

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