COVID-19 is making things harder for victims of domestic abuse. Here’s a way to help.

AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

People in abusive relationships have always had a nightmarish time navigating their way to get help. COVID-19 has only made it harder.

Emergency shelters at least offered a temporary roof over the heads of parents and young children fleeing abuse. And before lockdown, victims could still secretly confide what was going on at home during in-office appointments with pediatricians and primary care doctors.

Then the pandemic pretty much shut down those outlets.

During the height of the lockdown in the United States, shelters were turning people away in droves, and with nowhere to go and fewer ways to report abuse safely, victims stopped communicating through the usual channels. It led to a sharp plummet in the number of reported cases. In fact, Northeastern’s Domestic Violence Clinic, which serves victims in the immediate Boston area, saw a 66 percent drop between the spring of 2019 and 2020.

Margo Lindauer is director of the Domestic Violence Institute at the Northeastern University School of Law. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Taking the numbers at face value, the sharp decline suggested that the pandemic was improving people’s lives at home. But it wasn’t; it was making things worse. And Margo Lindauer knew it.

“In times of crisis, whatever crisis that is, domestic violence goes up,” says Lindauer, an associate clinical professor of law and director of the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern.

“With COVID, everyone was seeing rates going down, and we knew that wasn’t indicative of what was actually going on,” Lindauer says.

What was taking place behind the scenes, Lindauer and others at the clinic found, was that  victims were stuck at home in the same four walls as their abusers and couldn’t leave. Worse, they had no way of contacting the clinic, which is often alerted to abuse situations through social service community organizations and the court.

So Lindauer had an idea—Northeastern would bring the clinic to clients. Working in tandem with the NULawLab innovation hub, they pondered a new way forward that plays on Northeastern’s strength as a social justice law school.

What they came up with is the COVID Rapid Response Project, a two-stage effort involving a website where users fill out a few forms and choose a convenient and secure time to talk or text.

Then, the individual is routed to a newly created app that is going to be a safer way to communicate with clients. The app, which goes live July 1, lets victims safely and securely document instances of abuse. For privacy, the app will be hidden on the victim’s phone.

“I believe that this technology is something that can be replicated on a much bigger scale,” predicts Lindauer. “If this technology is effective, which I have every reason to believe it will be, this is something we can use across Massachusetts and across the country, really, in connecting folks to legal assistance.”

The technology is phase one of the project. Finding safer emergency housing is the next phase. And the most challenging.

Under the best of circumstances, it can be hard to find a vacancy at a domestic violence shelter. Now, shelters cannot make space for new arrivals because of distancing concerns.

Not to be deterred, the clinic is in talks with several hotels in Boston that have a relationship with the university in the hope of finding room for victims.

“I always say that more safe, affordable housing is something that as a community we need to expand,” Lindauer says.

But it’s an expensive proposition because of the high costs of hiring security.

A fundraising effort is currently underway with the goal of $100,000. It has managed to raise about $80,000, largely through former students and other supporters who worked at the clinic in their upper level of law school.

One of those students is Morgan Wilson, who now runs the Legal Assistance to Victims program, a unique endeavor that allows first years an opportunity to do community outreach, provide information on social and therapeutic services, know-your-rights training, and other holistic legal work.

“We look at clients in the fullness of their humanity,” says Wilson, a former political appointee in the Department of Justice in the Obama administration. “Northeastern recognized it’s not about servicing one small piece of a client’s needs. There are other needs that have to be supported.”

And with those needs comes the realization of just how tough life is for some people.

The pandemic has, in a positive way, made society take a good look at the struggles certain members of the community have to endure, says Lindauer.

“It has forced a conversation on many different levels about how people living in poverty—specifically Black and brown individuals–don’t have the same access to institutions and assistance as those with means do,” she says. “And that’s a good conversation to have.”

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