An advocate at Through These Doors works at the resource center and support group for victims of domestic and sexual abuse. The organization's hotline has reported more calls this month as the coronavirus has brought increased isolation, which can exacerbate abuse situations. Credit: Courtesy of Through These Doors

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

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Social distancing, while necessary to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, brings the very real risk of heightening vulnerabilities for victims of domestic abuse and violence and their children.

With increased community isolation, routine spaces where survivors and their children find respite from abusers are closed. Survivors, with nowhere else to go, may need to seek relief from our courts through protection from abuse orders to ensure their homes can be a safe place, and they may need support to do that safely and effectively.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

To that end, while the last weeks have brought many changes to the ways community services function, two things remain unchanged: Our courts are open to survivors who need protection orders to keep themselves and their children safe, and advocates around the state are still available 24/7 to help survivors navigate these proceedings and with a broad range of other safety needs.

Domestic violence advocates across Maine historically provide in-person support at courthouses for more than 3,000 survivors annually. While Maine’s domestic violence resource centers are doing our part in helping to stop the spread of the virus, including making the difficult decision not to send advocates in person to courthouses until public health guidance changes, these advocates continue to be available 24/7 to provide information, support, and referrals for legal representation and/or consultation. They are available before, during and after each of a survivor’s interactions at the courthouse. This includes helping survivors understand how to fill out and file forms, identify and strategize around safety needs, and plan for final hearings, as well as providing direct connections to other critical community resources.

Social distancing necessitates everyone connected to the courts stepping up differently — judges, clerks, law enforcement, attorneys and advocates. We note that, for decades, advocates and survivors have done some of their best work together by phone. In this way, domestic violence resource centers, many of which began as hotlines, are uniquely positioned to successfully navigate this new remote-access world immediately — including remotely providing support services for survivors seeking protection orders. Our courts and many organizations that frequently intersect with the courts were confronted by this crisis without the ideal remote access tools and protocols in place. Yet, we are seeing our community partners rapidly increasing abilities and capacities for connecting remotely — via email, telephone and video conference and other creative means.

The domestic violence resource centers around the state have experienced unprecedented levels of cooperation and collaboration from some of our courts and other partners to help ensure survivors have necessary supports. This includes several court clerks electronically sending court documents to advocates to enable continued outreach to survivors to offer timely assistance; some attorneys who are not in high risk health categories stepping forward to volunteer pro bono legal services for survivors; court personnel making arrangements in at least one county to connect advocates by phone directly into courtrooms where final hearings are happening; police visiting survivors after an assault to make direct connections between survivors and an advocate by phone to address safety needs. The list goes on.

We are all in this together in this unprecedented time and are figuring it out as we go. As of this week, the courts, although working with reduced hours, are maintaining essential court functions. This importantly includes temporary and final protection from abuse orders. And advocates continue to be available to help survivors navigate this process and attend to a host of other safety needs. Though we expect to see practices continuing to evolve across the state, advocates will remain available. If you are experiencing domestic abuse or violence, please reach out to your local domestic violence resource center for help.

Andrea Mancuso is the public policy director for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.