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Bar News

Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Advocates Rising to New Challenges

By Scott Merrill

One of the questions on people’s minds in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has been what constitutes “essential services.”

For those counselors, attorney’s and administrators working for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault at New Hampshire’s crisis centers, the services they provide have never been more essential as they are now.

“With people locked indoors we’re anticipating folks won’t be able to reach out at the moment of crisis,” said Pamel Kelig, a Public Policy Specialist at The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “The Coalition is working together with agencies around the state and crisis lines are open 24/7.”

The Coalition provides a number of crucial services, including policy advocacy and prevention education, for 13 Crisis Centers around the state.

In 2018, NH’S 13 Domestic and sexual violence crisis centers served 15,346 individuals impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

Kelig said shelter demand is currently a major concern for victim advocates who are working to make sure their facilities are safe and healthy.

“We’re adjusting our services in order to still be acceptable for victims,” said Kelig, explaining that her organization is creating innovative ways of addressing the needs of victims and survivors and continuing to work with attorneys to make sure victim’s cases are being heard.

“When we go back to normal life we will see a spike, that’s our fear, Kelig continued. “But right now we’re using mobile outreach, secure apps on phones, and working closely with the court system to make sure victims and survivors have domestic violence petitions, and getting their hearings scheduled. That’s not going away and it’s really great. The main message is that we want to be as available as possible even though things are going to be different.”

While all other in-person advocacy for victims has stopped, along with hospitals calls and police accompaniment, courts continue to hear domestic violence cases and protective orders.

According to Attorney Angelica Wilkerson, a project coordinator for the DOVE program, there has been a drop in referrals. The reasons for this, she said, is that it is currently not a safe time for people to reach out.

“I imagine there may be a lull in protective order cases for a while because people are inside with their abusers,” said Wilkerson. “And then there will be an influx. Many offenders are experiencing job loss and this changes people’s routines. That’s a dangerous time and when it’s paired with not having the ability to be away from the abuser, it’s scary.”

Another reason referrals are down, Wilkerson continued, is likely connected to the fact that schools are out.

“Some of our secondary victims and reporters are children. But when they’re staying at home they’re not able to report,” she said, adding that this is, “very concerning.”

The Domestic Violence Emergency (DOVE) Project is a program of the New Hampshire Bar Association’s Pro Bono Referral Program that provides victims of violence and stalking with emergency legal services.

DOVE is operated in partnership with domestic violence service agencies throughout NH and relies on the donated services of specially trained attorneys.

Wilkerson said that attorney’s all over the state are currently willing to take cases such as emergency protective order cases, domestic violence and stalking protective orders, as well as Ex Parte parenting matters related to domestic violence.

“There are a lot of novel issues right now that judges haven’t had to deal with in family courts,” Wilkerson said. “’Do I still have to send my kid to their father’s house during quarantine?’ Or, parents disagreeing what’s appropriate for kids.”

One of the attorney’s who works through the DOVE program is Leif Becker. Becker, an attorney with Coughlin, Rainboth, Murphy & Lown in Portsmouth, works on cases at Haven, the largest violence prevention and support agency in the state.

“They’ve gone completely remote now,” said Becker, “We’re presented with a very unique challenge. While the hotline is open and domestic violence victims can call in the initial meeting is remote. DV is an area where a lot of my clients have been dealing with it for a long time.”

Becker’s concern with remote meetings is that fewer victims will come forward because they do not have the support of friends and other family members to accompany them or to encourage them to go seek out the support of a crisis center.

“When there’s an escalation in violence maybe there was a friend or family member who got them to seek help,” said Becker, “When you’re not meeting face to face it can be difficult.”

Becker said he is still receiving cases and has felt “fortunate” to be a DOVE attorney, “because it is a unique pro bono opportunity.”

“I think a lot of attorneys have the impression that pro bono clients expect the most for the least, and that pro bono will take a lot of time out of their practice. While I know that this can be true, it tends not to be for DOVE,” said Becker. “I truly don’t think there are many opportunities where you can have such a profound impact on an individual’s life with such a small investment of time, as is possible with the DOVE Project. Without being dramatic sometimes this impact may be the difference between life and death….I would encourage more attorney’s to get involved as it is truly I think the most service an attorney can give in a small amount of time.”

On March 26th Governor Sununu issued a “stay at home” order that is in effect until May 4. Sadly, the central theme that appears to have emerged for crisis advocates around the state is that home, for many, is not a safe place.

According to CEO of the Manchester YWCA, Jessica Cantin, “the largest concern is that for a lot of people experiencing domestic violence trauma, from children to adults, staying at home is not a safe place.”

Cantin, whose crisis center sees 2,700 people a year, acknowledged the need to social distance and to be safe in order to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. She is also grappling, she said, to balance these concerns with the knowledge that individuals in New Hampshire lose their life each year because of domestic violence.

On Thursday, Cantin said crisis line calls were down but that people are still seeking help.

“Sometimes folks aren’t able to reach out,” Cantin said, “but today there were actually people showing up on site. It was hard to have to tell them they need to call the crisis center. It puts us in a really tough position of balancing public health concerns with our clients needs.”