For victims of domestic and sexual violence, experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has only added to their fear and anxiety.

Soon after the pandemic hit, HAVEN, a Portsmouth-based nonprofit that aids those victims, created a chat feature on its website that allowed individuals to reach out for help if they no longer had an opportunity to make a call since they were either not at work or their abuser was home.

“When (victims) were stuck at home, sometimes they were reaching out via the chat feature and couldn’t even make the phone call because the person was right there with them. It looked like they were just doing work on their computer,” said Kathy Beebe, HAVEN’s executive director.

HAVEN serves Rockingham and Strafford counties and has offices in Portsmouth, Epping and Rochester.

The biggest increase in calls during the height of the pandemic came from people who were in imminent danger and needed emergency shelter, but for others, Beebe said, the abuse was escalating as they were further isolated and it wasn’t until the stay-at-home orders were being lifted that they reached out and calls spiked.

“We did hear from the very beginning from folks who were experiencing escalated violence due to isolation because we had already been working with them,” Beebe said.

Leaders at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence reported a 63 percent increase in crisis calls made to member programs between March 1 and Sept. 30, 2020.

Beebe doesn’t believe the pandemic is the cause of some domestic violence but said that in relationships that were already abusive and controlling, the risk factors increased as a result of stress and isolation.

“There was a lot of stress for all families during the pandemic, but not all of them were domestic violence,” she said.

Once some children in abusive homes returned to school and were back with trusted adults who could check in on them, Beebe said HAVEN also saw a significant increase in reporting.

“We continue to see more people reaching out. Part of that is pandemic-related in that the pandemic was able to shine light on the fact that domestic violence happens and a lot of people learned that they’re not alone and able to get the help,” Beebe said.

Reaching the children affected by domestic violence has proven to be challenging during the pandemic.

HAVEN provides prevention education at schools for students in kindergarten through grade 12. During the last school year, the agency had to find creative ways to reach students because they could no longer visit schools.

“For kids that were still going to school we were able to virtually present to their classrooms, but if kids were home doing remote learning we had to be careful with our messaging because you didn’t know if it was a safe environment for kids,” Beebe said.

In a normal year, HAVEN saw about 15,000 school children, but that dropped to about 4,000 during the pandemic.

Some programs will still be offered virtually this year because some schools are not allowing visitors, Beebe said.

“We often hear that a child has shared what’s going on at home after we’ve been in their classroom and so if they haven’t had access to that kind of programming and were isolated at home with an abuser with no trusted adult checking in on them, then it makes sense that until they were back in school you didn’t see that they were getting the help,” she said.

Leaders at the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence say 750 victims under the age of 18 received support from NH crisis centers from March 1 to Sept. 30, 2020.

Before the pandemic, HAVEN was working to increase its shelter capacity.

Its shelter is a house that offers communal living, which has also been challenging during the pandemic.

When the need increased during the pandemic, the agency adopted an alternative shelter model that uses hotels and hospitality options, which is more costly.

“It’s really not okay that we don’t have the ability to safely shelter people that are fleeing abuse,” Beebe said.

From March 1 to Sept. 30, 2020, there were 24,876 total bed nights that adult and child victims stayed in emergency shelters, according to the report from the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

In 2019, New Hampshire's domestic and sexual violence crisis centers served 15,764 individuals impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

HAVEN's 24-hour confidential support line can be reached by calling 1-603-994-SAFE (7233).

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