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 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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As people around the world stay at home to slow the spread of coronavirus, the risk of domestic violence and abuse has increased. Nationwide, many urban police departments have seen large increases in domestic violence related calls. Some resource and support groups in Maine have also seen growing demand for their help.

Last week, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on leaders to help stop the surge in domestic violence. “Many women under lockdown for #COVID19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes,” Guterres wrote on Twitter. “Today I appeal for peace in homes around the world. I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.”

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

It will take more than speeches and government help. It is more important than ever that we are all aware of the signs of domestic violence and abuse and are informed about what we can do to help survivors.

In a recent phone survey of people who called the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence’s coalition’s hotline, 70 percent said that the pandemic had impacted their safety, and 54 percent said that they had elevated safety concerns because of the social distancing requirements, according to Executive Director Francine Garland Stark.

For victims and survivors of domestic violence and abuse, the stay-at-home orders, while necessary to protect us all from the spread of coronavirus, can leave them cut off from friends, family and others who lend support and help, which further empowers their abusers.

Many people who are enduring abuse believe that, because of the fear of the spread of coronavirus, the police will not come to their assistance if they call for help, Stark said. The police will still show up.

Some believe that courts are closed so they can’t get a protection from abuse order. While hours have been limited, courts are still open and they are still processing PFA orders, with clerks, attorneys, police officers and others finding new ways to connect survivors with the support and services they need to stay safe.

Some may believe it unsafe to go to a hospital for treatment of injuries for fear of contracting coronavirus, or because they believe medical staff are too overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and can’t help them. These workers can and will help.

Other people think they can’t go to a hotel or friend’s home to escape abuse. They can. The governor’s March 31 order makes specific exceptions for health and safety.

To be proactive, family, friends, co-workers and others should raise their awareness of potential violence and abuse.

Employers should routinely check in with employees who are now working at home or who aren’t in regular contact with their supervisors. They should be especially attentive to what the employee is saying and be aware of unusual signs of stress. These could include an employee saying that tensions are rising in their home or that they are having a difficult time focusing on their work because of things that are happening around them.

While these can be signs of generalized stress (which employers should also address) they may also be indications that the employee needs targeted help to deal with an abusive relationship.

Friends and family members should also learn to recognize these signs. Supportive friends and families must also understand the difficulty of communication during the coronavirus-related lockdowns. Victims of ongoing abuse may not be able to openly discuss what is happening to them. To be helpful, look for opportunities to connect — such as through a virtual playdate for your children — and listen attentively to what you are hearing.

You may also want to develop a set of code words to allow calls for help that will not be disrupted by an abuser. For example, saying “I’m so tired, I need a nap,” could mean a victim needs to get out of the house and talk — at a safe physical distance — about what is happening in their home. “I’d like to go for a walk” could mean that the person is in immediate danger and needs the police to be called. The code phrases should sound like common conversation and be sure that both you and the person you are trying to help clearly understands what they mean.

Additionally, we should all be concerned about family, friends and co-workers who are being or might be abusive. Now is the time to let them know that although they are struggling and anxious, it is never acceptable to abuse someone else. Batterer intervention programs are a resource that can help those who are turning to violence.

Remind those seeking help that they can get it 24 hours a day by calling a helpline at 1-866-834-4357.

Watch: Janet Mills extends civil emergency in Maine

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