On the morning of April 30, Rhode Island elected officials and state workers held an online Violence Prevention Town Hall seminar on Facebook, discussing issues related to domestic violence and how it is related to the current COVID-19 crisis.
Since January, there have been increases in domestic violence reports, especially involving children, as the state has continued its stay-at-home order.
As Rhode Island seeks to develop ways to protect victims of domestic violence, Gov. Gina Raimondo said she and her team would not accept violence of any kind during this pandemic.
“I hope that the people of Rhode Island will look at this panel and see how serious we are about making sure that we have a zero-tolerance policy for violence of any kind, and particularly violence in the home,” she said. “I know I’m proud to live in a state where you have the entire federal delegation, a colonel of the state police, the governor, the attorney general, all standing up together to say, ‘We want you to be safe in your home, and domestic violence of any kind if not going to be tolerated.’”
Raimondo also reminded viewers that domestic violence goes beyond just disputes between partners.
“I have been talking at my daily press conferences about violence at home, the very disturbing increase in 911 calls on account of domestic violence. I know when people hear that, they often think about violence in a relationship, between a husband and wife, but it’s not just that,” she said. “It’s child abuse, child neglect, elder abuse, and frankly, it’s all unacceptable, and sadly, we know that it is all happening at a higher incident than it typically is. All the services and supports that are typically available to you are still available to you even during this pandemic. We have been hearing from a lot of people who say, ‘I don’t know if I can call the hotline,’ ‘I don’t know if DCYF is as available for cases of child abuse and neglect.’ The answer is yes, absolutely, and then some.”
The governor went on to mention the Crime Victims Compensation Program, which is being run out of the general treasurer’s office. This program provides emergency funding for relocation for victims of domestic violence. The office is providing up-front payments of up to $5,000 toward relocation or hotel stays for victims. The number to call regarding the program is (401) 462-7655.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed also took part in the town hall and said that Congress has made an effort to spread awareness regarding the different resources available for help, as well as increase funds for relief.
“First, we have to make sure that everyone knows how they can access help, [whether it’s] telephonically, computers, virtual means – no victim should be left alone or feel alone, feel like they have no place to turn,” he said. “Second, we have got to increase resources. In the CARES Act, we put down $92 million. That is just a down payment. We need five times that much money nationally to deal with this issue, this epidemic of domestic violence. We are with you, we’ll stand with you, we’re here with you. We are here to put an end to domestic violence.”
Reed further stated that the CARES Act also included resources for drug and alcohol addiction as well as suicide prevention.
U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin said that $45 million of the CARES Act funding was devoted toward family violence prevention and that he signed a letter to request that the Violence Against Women Act be reauthorized in future COVID-19 packages.
“You are not alone. There are resources, from the Rhode Island Victims of Crime hotline, to child abuse, to elder abuse resources available from the state,” he said. “I really do hope that people take advantage of these programs if they need them. The statistic that has been most devastating to me is that many jurisdictions report that reports of domestic violence have fallen throughout this pandemic. The experts that I have interviewed about the decline have been crystal clear – it’s not because rates are plummeting, rather, it very well could be because people are scared or unable to call for help, which is heartbreaking to hear. We can’t be lulled into a sense of complacency because the reports have declined. We need to be vigilant and recognize that it may just be something that is hidden right now and is not being reported. Please, please, do not suffer in silence.”
Other participants of the town hall included U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, who mentioned the national domestic violence text hotline, which can be reached at 741-741. This hotline operates 24/7 and connects users to counselors of various crises that can help.
“You will get immediately connected to a crisis counselor for any kind of crisis that you are in the middle of. Sometimes it is not safe to use the phone because you’re afraid of an abuser overhearing the conversation, so you can text,” Cicilline said.
Attorney General Peter Neronha also took part in the town hall. He mentioned a new online database called “Voice,” which also allows users to inquire on pending legal cases.
State Executive Office of Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones shared some recent percentages regarding domestic violence allegations and reports.
“Percentages of more severe allegations are increasing. The percentage of neglect and maltreatment allegations have increased from January to April from about 75.6 percent to 82 percent, and during the same period, the percentage of domestic violence allegations have also increased from about 17 percent to 20 percent,” she said. “These trends outpace last year’s numbers. We need to do our best to ensure that everybody knows that we are here to help, we are here to help keep them safe.”
Jones emphasized the importance of prevention.
“Prevention should be our goal. It is like that dream. If you can do that prevention work well enough, so much of that should be lessened, to be able to be voided to the degree that it can be,” she said. “One thing that the governor has made clear to me as we have been making our way throughout this pandemic is that state government must continue. We have a few roads we have to go down, but don’t stop helping our residents because we’re so focused on only addressing COVID-19.”
During the town hall, Rhode Island State Police Superintendent Col. James Manni announced the launch of the new “Safe at Home” feature on the state police website, which began operations on April 30.
The section of the website shares the various resources available in the state regarding domestic violence and helps users connect with the many outlets included.
Tonya Harris, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, recommended that victims visit her organization’s five member agencies, including the Blackstone Valley Advocacy Center, Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center, Domestic Violence Resource Center, Sojourner House and Women’s Resource Center. These agencies will help victims with sheltering, health and financial issues during this time of crisis. They have also expanded their online help hotlines to 24/7 service.
As the numbers of child-related domestic violence reports have increased, local pediatrician Chrisitine Barron also urged locals to remember that these calls should be made, even if they are based on suspicion alone. “We are all mandated reporters,” she said.
To report child abuse, call 1-800-RICHILD. For elder abuse, call (401) 462-0555. To reach the RI Victims of Crime hotline, call 1-800-494-8100.