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Harford County’s SARC still providing domestic, sexual assault resources during coronavirus pandemic

Though staying home is a safeguard against the novel coronavirus sweeping through Maryland and across the nation, it does not protect from domestic and sexual abuse, and has the potential to exacerbate cases and put survivors further at risk.

To address the potential problem, domestic and sexual violence service providers in Harford County and the state are remaining open — responding to emergencies with legal aid, personalized plans to ensure survivors’ safety and a round-the-clock hotline to connect survivors with help.

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Harford County’s Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center (SARC) will continue to operate its 24-hour phone line and emergency shelter as well as add an online chat option to its website, as Marylanders are being encouraged to stay at home, leaving potential victims of domestic and sexual abuse vulnerable.

“For victims of domestic violence and sexual violence, practicing self-isolation and sheltering has made seeking help including shelter, legal assistance and counseling all the more difficult,” a news release states. “While social distancing benefits those most at risk of becoming seriously ill, it will inevitably make others more vulnerable, including victims of domestic violence.”

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The organization also provides counseling, safety planning and legal services. Courts in the state are still hearing conducting emergency hearings for protective orders and other similar cases.

SARC development director Neala Lancellotti said domestic assaults are more common when people cannot leave the house — as they are during snowstorms — though it is too early to tell if there will be more assaults or referrals for the organization’s services as the coronavirus ripples through Maryland. SARC intends to provide resources to those who need them and deal with the situation as it unfolds.

"During these times, you are more isolated with your abuser ... it can definitely lead to more things happening,” she said. "This is all very new for everyone, and everyone is navigating it, so I think it is something that time will tell.”

The organization receives referrals from police, courts and hospitals, providing services to approximately 2,000 people a year in the county, Lancellotti said. Its emergency shelter is also taking actions to comply with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the release states.

The Harford County Sheriff’s Office reported a slight increase in domestic violence cases between March 13 and 27 — approximately 8.9% over the two weeks, spokeswoman Cristie Hopkins said. But that increase comes in the context of an 11.3% decrease in domestic violence cases in 2020′s first quarter as compared to 2019′s. Overall crime in the county is on the down-slope as well, she said.

Though the increase correlates to actions taken in response to the pandemic, Hopkins it is too early to tell if the encouragement to stay at home is its cause. The sheriff’s office has a domestic violence unit that is prepared to respond as needed, she said.

According to SARC, about one in four women and one in seven men over the age of 18 have experienced severe physical violence from their partner. Crime data also suggests that about one in six homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner, the release states.

State and law enforcement agencies have acknowledged the potential for an increased risk to victims of domestic violence, leading the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services to commission a public service announcement advising Marylanders to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline if they need to. The office is also partnering with victim service providers and working to increase awareness of available help around the state.

The PSA is designed to highlight “the increased risk victims of abuse face during times of increased proximity to their abuser, and other stressors presented by the COVID-19 outbreak,” the release states. The office has also assembled a list of resources those affected by domestic violence can refer to.

“We cannot predict the number of domestic violence cases that will be reported during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, there is an increased risk for victims of domestic violence and abuse during this time of uncertainty and social isolation," the office said. "Victims may not be able to distance themselves physically or emotionally from their abusers in order to seek help.”

SARC reported that domestic abuse situations can be exacerbated and aided by the pandemic, which has forced many into their homes and limited their abilities to go out in public in an effort to stop transmission of the virus.

“When survivors are forced to stay in the home or in close proximity to their abuser more frequently, an abuser can use any tool to exert control over their victim, including a national health concern such as COVID-19,” the release states.

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Already, the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth and Victim Services said, that has happened. The YWCA of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County has received calls suggesting that some abusers are using the coronavirus to keep people in, the release states.

“The YWCA of Annapolis & Anne Arundel County reports victims have recently called their hotline to say their abuser told them they could not leave home because of fears of contracting COVID-19 as a means to keep them in an abusive situation,” the release states.

Lancellotti encouraged anyone in need of SARC’s services to call the 24-hour help line at 410-836-8430 or reach out to the organization through its online chat feature on its website.

Those in need of assistance can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or through online chat on its website.

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