Daniel Zhao, Senior Photographer

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep the nation, its effects are exacerbating another public health crisis in New Haven: domestic violence.

In light of Domestic Violence Awareness Month this October, community leaders — including the Umbrella Center for Domestic Violence Services, Mayor Justin Elicker and New Haven Police Department Chief Otoniel Reyes — have been reflecting on how the pandemic has affected survivors of domestic violence. Early this month, city leaders held a press conference at City Hall and gave speeches about the state of domestic violence in New Haven as well as initiatives to help survivors. The leaders attributed the spike in reports of domestic violence to a variety of factors such as lockdown orders, public health restrictions and lack of access to community services. 

“What we’ve really seen is an increase in is how complex the cases are,” Director of the Umbrella Center for Domestic Violence Services Esperina Stubblefield told the News. “Cases used to be centered around physical, emotional abuse. Now, we’re seeing a lot of things to do with financing, eviction, rent. It is a lot of partnership [with other local service organizations] that we’re having to do at a time where it’s difficult.”

Elicker also told the News that the city has seen an upward trend in domestic violence cases. He said that this could be attributed to people largely staying inside their homes for long periods of time, only leaving to obtain essential goods and services.

Statistics shared by the Umbrella Center also showed an increase in reports of domestic violence in New Haven. Stubblefield said that more calls were coming in, and therefore the center is processing more cases. She said that there have been more crime reports, hospitalizations and relocations during the pandemic. Within a year, the center has seen a 28 percent increase in service requests.

When the pandemic hit in March, the center needed to rapidly adapt its services to adhere to public health guidelines. Stubblefield said that the center’s team is extremely busy, especially as they are now working remotely from home. She cited the example of one client who urgently needed a plane ticket to explain how the pandemic has made rendering services more difficult.

“Originally, we would have them come to the office and issue it to them,” Stubblefield said. “Now we have to make arrangements to meet with them at an open-air location. Advocates are also traveling from home at greater distances.”

Reyes also emphasized the difficulties of tackling domestic violence cases that existed even before the pandemic.

In a press conference, Reyes said that, in the past, law enforcement had not taken complaints of domestic violence seriously enough.

“In some ways, [the system] perpetrated domestic violence by virtue of an action or by virtue of trivializing the issue,” Reyes said. “When we look at the stats, years ago, we recognize that victims often reported that they were revictimized by the way law enforcement dealt with these issues. How we respond to these incidents is critical to whether or not we stop the cycle of domestic violence.”

In response to the problems of law enforcement tackling domestic violence cases, Elicker said that the city is working on establishing a Community Crisis Response team. The team –– composed of trained mental health professionals and social service providers –– plans to assist in domestic violence calls for assistance and other crisis situations that may not require police intervention.

During the same press conference, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, said that the government is working to “turn violence to safety and despair to optimism” — a mission she said is being pursued in all levels of government.

She commended the anti-domestic violence advocates for turning attention and resources to address the domestic violence public health crisis.

When asked what message the center wanted to convey this Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Stubblefield said that she wanted to let the survivors know that the center stands firmly with them in this challenging time.

“Yes, it’s a pandemic, and everyone is home –– but services are still being rendered and are as effective as they were before,” Stubblefield said.

The center will be hosting other events during the month. On Oct. 22, the center will celebrate Purple Thursday, when everyone is encouraged to wear purple to support domestic violence survivors. On Oct. 28, the center plans to hold a Community Impact Breakfast, where clients will share stories of recovery and success.

The Umbrella Center is still available for virtual services, and staff can meet with clients in person through appointment. 

Razel Suansing | razel.suansing@yale.edu

Razel Suansing is a staff reporter and producer for the City, YTV, and Magazine desks. She covers cops and courts, specifically state criminal justice reform efforts, the New Haven Police Department, and the Yale Police Department. Originally from Manila, Philippines, she is a first-year in Davenport College, majoring in Global Affairs.