The helpline at Caring Unlimited, York County’s domestic violence resource center, now rings 300 times a month, more than ever before.

Sometimes the calls are from victims in immediate need of shelter from danger. Sometimes it’s a victim looking for support to deal with violence or abuse at home. Family members call, too, for guidance on how to help those they know who are experiencing abuse.

“It’s the busiest any of us have ever seen it,” said Susan Giambalvo, Caring Unlimited’s executive director. “We are consistently seeing more complexity in people’s situations and increased levels of danger.”

Across the state, domestic violence resource centers fielded record numbers of calls and electronic messages in the past year, a concerning trend advocates say is exacerbated by a shortage of affordable housing, backlogged court cases and difficulty accessing mental health services during the pandemic.

“We continue to see that people’s challenges and barriers are more complex, more intractable and more difficult to deal with,” said Regina Rooney, communications director for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. “A lot of this has to do with the pandemic, and a lot of it has to do with the stubborn nature of domestic abuse and violence and the way abusive people will capitalize on whatever vulnerabilities they can find to keep control.”

In the fiscal year that ended in September, Maine’s domestic violence resource centers assisted more than 11,000 adults in crisis and fielded calls from another 1,800 community members concerned about the safety of people they knew. Helpline calls with survivors were up 13 percent over the previous year, according to the coalition, a nonprofit that supports nine member organizations focused on preventing domestic abuse and violence. Contacts through emails, texts, secure chat and video services went up 67 percent.

The Maine Department of Public Safety’s annual crime statistics, released last week, show a 6 percent decrease in the number of domestic violence assaults in 2020, with 3,468 incidents reported to law enforcement. It’s the sixth year of declining reported domestic violence assaults.

But the key word here is reported. So much domestic violence is not. The Department of Justice estimates that only 27 percent of female victims and 13.5 percent of male victims make police reports.

Advocates who work with victims know the annual statistic for Maine does not begin to tell the story.

“It is just one piece of a very complicated picture,” Rooney said.

For starters, it leaves out other crime associated with domestic violence, including stalking, a leading indicator that an abusive situation could become fatal. Other aspects of abuse — financial control or isolating a partner from family, for example – are not in themselves crimes to which police could respond. Victims may be unable or reluctant to call police for fear that outside involvement could make their situations more unstable and less safe.

“Many of the things that abusive people do to maintain control over their partners and family members are not illegal,” Rooney said. “We have to realize that we cannot look to the criminal justice system to solve this problem for us.”

Christina Foster volunteers for Through These Doors, the domestic violence resource center in Cumberland County. “People are unaware of how pervasive it is,” she said. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

CALL AFTER CALL

Christina Foster answers multiple calls during most of her volunteer shifts for Through These Doors, the domestic violence resource center in Cumberland County. One night, she spoke to 19 people reaching out about domestic violence or abuse.

Someone might call for specific information about how to get a protection order. A victim may just need somebody to talk to about what they are going through. Recently, a woman called who had already left her abuser and was trying to process it all. When Foster told her about a support group, the woman told her that was exactly what she needed but she hadn’t realized it was an option.

Volunteer advocates like Foster play a critical role, said Rebecca Hobbs, executive director of Through These Doors. All volunteers go through a 44-hour training and more are always needed, she said.

In the fiscal year that ended in September, Through These Doors received 9,780 helpline calls, 13 percent over the previous year. Over the same period, the demand for shelter beds jumped by 50 percent.

Through These Doors, which runs a 16-bed shelter, provided 8,752 bed nights – that’s one person per bed per night – during fiscal 2021. During the first year of the pandemic, the organization relied on COVID-19 relief funding to rent hotel rooms for people who needed temporary shelter, but now those funds are gone.

Hobbs said the housing crisis in Greater Portland has made it significantly more difficult to find housing for victims, particularly those with large families. The lack of available and affordable units has forced people into shelters for much longer stays and prevented some people from leaving abusive situations in the first place, she said.

Securing housing for survivors has been a challenge for quite some time, Hobbs said, but has become more difficult during the pandemic with landlords unwilling to take on new tenants.

“We work really hard to build relationships with landlords because they’re being extra careful right now about who they house,” she said.

Housing also is a significant challenge in York County, where rental prices have risen sharply in recent years. At Caring Unlimited, a large number of requests for shelter just can’t be met, Giambalvo said.

“It takes months for some survivors to find an apartment,” she said.

Survivors searching for housing are also grappling with lengthy court delays during the pandemic. The delays have left some survivors in uncertain situations as they wait for divorces, custody and other matters to be settled in court, Giambalvo said.

“That’s impacting a lot of people’s safety and ability to go forward in their lives,” Giambalvo said.

Caring Unlimited is serving more people than ever through its legal assistance program, which includes two attorneys and two legal advocates who help survivors navigate the civil court system. In the past year, they helped more than 700 people, up from about 600 the year before.

Rooney, from the coalition, said a shortage of pro bono legal services and representation is a real barrier for many survivors and “a significant gap in our current response.”

Legal assistance programs like the one at Caring Unlimited are getting a boost in funding from federal grants awarded to agencies across the state this fall. Caring Unlimited was awarded nearly $600,000 through the federal Legal Assistance for Victims Program. Partners for Peace, Family Violence Project and Next Stop Domestic Violence Project also received grants through the program to provide legal assistance to victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Those grants are included in nearly $9 million in federal funding recently awarded to 14 organizations and state agencies to prevent domestic violence and protect survivors.

Through These Doors received $750,000 to continue providing services in the Lakes Region of Cumberland County. The grant will allow the organization to partner with the town of Standish and the Naples Public Library to provide spaces for advocates to meet with victims. Advocates also will continue to partner with Bridgton police and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office to do assessments of higher-risk cases.

“This important investment will provide greater access to necessary services for victims, help strengthen our state’s response to these crimes, and allow Maine organizations to continue to protect the vulnerable members of their communities,” Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King said when they announced the grants in October.

COMMUNITY HELP

While the federal funding is critical, advocates say much more needs to be done to support survivors and hold abusers accountable.

Intervening and ending domestic violence requires “a multi-layered and community-wide approach in which those who believe they can treat their intimate partners and families horribly will be convinced to change their beliefs and abusive behavior, and those they harm are supported to be safe and secure,” said Francine Garland Stark, the coalition’s executive director.

More programs across the state are beginning to focus on educating people about signs of abuse to look for and ways to hold abusers accountable. Caring Unlimited will use a new $500,000 federal grant to start a community-based prevention program to educate youth about the dynamics of domestic violence.

Rooney said an important part of community response to domestic violence is offering a non-judgmental ear to people experiencing abuse. But it’s also critical, she says, to reckon with the idea “that people who commit this kind of crime are not monsters from the evil dark woods – they are the people in our lives.”

Hobbs, from Through These Doors, has found that volunteer advocates who answer helpline calls often educate others in the community.

Since Foster began volunteering six years ago, she has had conversations with many people in her community about the impacts of domestic violence. Most are surprised when she shares that more than 13,000 people in Maine reach out to resource centers each year, she said.

“People are unaware of how pervasive it is,” said Foster, who also works for the coalition. “I always make a point to talk about how this is an issue that crosses all lines and demographics. … It’s everywhere.”

Giambalvo said she would like to see more community members who know abusive people step in and tell them that their behavior is not OK.

“We want to believe that domestic violence is private or that it happens to someone else. But if we know someone who has been a victim of domestic violence, chances are we also know somebody who has perpetrated it,” she said. “What we see is that as much as we want to protect the person who is experiencing this abuse and help them achieve safety, there is also an opportunity for the person who is choosing abuse to change their behavior.”

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