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When home isn’t the safest place to be

For victims and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, social distancing can be life-threatening.

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins says that the possibility of increased incidents of domestic violence is “ a very significant fear that I have regarding this social distancing.” Face-to-face social interaction is often a lifeline.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Hunker down. Work from home. Avoid people you don’t live with.

Unless absolutely necessary, don’t leave the house.

To slow the rapid spread of the new coronavirus, federal, state, and local officials have stressed that the most effective way to fight this pandemic is social distancing. People will be safest, they say, at home.

But what does that mean to those for whom home is anything but safe?

To many, being largely restricted to our apartments or homes ranges from annoying to inconvenient. For victims and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, it can be life-threatening.


“When people are isolated and confined, their vulnerability is exacerbated," said Debra J. Robbin, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. “Access to resources might be limited. Access to a phone or computer might be controlled.

“We have to remember that domestic and sexual violence is about power and control, and it thrives in silence," she continued. "So, to some extent, these are the perfect conditions to foster that.”

Even before the pandemic, sexual and domestic violence were already an epidemic in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women and one in nine men “experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking with impacts such as injury, fearfulness, post-traumatic stress disorder, use of victim services, [and] contraction of sexually transmitted diseases.”

So far, there’s been no noticeable increase in domestic violence cases, said Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, but “that is a very significant fear that I have regarding this social distancing.” For victims and survivors, she said, face-to-face social interaction is often a lifeline; work and school is often a temporary respite from various forms of abuse and violence.


Now that lifeline has been severed. With schools closed for at least several weeks, this also applies to children, whether they are victimized directly or as witnesses to violence.

“The mandated reporters — the school nurse, teachers, teacher’s aides — aren’t there to notice" that a child "looks different today, looks exhausted, or is exhibiting behavior” previously unseen, Rollins said. “Now with this social distancing and isolation, it’s not only the victims of domestic violence, but also the children who aren’t getting the services and treatment they need.”

Because of the pandemic, families are spending more time together under less-than-ideal circumstances. Job or financial insecurities, the jarring effect of being plucked out of daily routines, or fears of contracting the virus itself have complicated our lives faster than we can adjust. In the tinderbox of abusive homes, these are all additional trigger points for escalated violence, whether it’s physical, emotional, financial, or psychological.

Still, there are options. Survivor hotlines remain open. Services are still available. Even under current circumstances, those seeking to get or renew restraining orders can still do so. Rollins said she considers granting protective orders “an emergency.” The answer, she said, can’t be "no.”

For the foreseeable future, social distancing will be the uncomfortable norm. Robbins stressed that we must now also practice “physical distancing and social connection” to break the isolation of those who are most vulnerable. Check on neighbors. Pay attention to sounds of violence or distress. Knock on a door and, from a safe distance, let them know you’re there for them. Be that lifeline.


“We’re getting advice from the government and it doesn’t apply equitably to everyone. We need to think about vulnerability in a more subtle, nuanced way,” she said. "I think we should not only be about saving lots of lives from the virus, but also from the other things that will be compounded by this situation. We need to find new ways of being in community with each other.

“We shouldn’t just do that with people we know,” Robbins said. “When we look back on this era, it will be defined by how we treated each other more than anything else.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual assault or domestic violence, call the SafeLink Statewide Hotline: 1-877-785-2020 TTY: 1-877-521-2601

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Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.