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When is a drop in domestic violence bad news?

“You’re going to see under-reporting because people are afraid. They’re living with their abuser," Attorney General Maura Healey said of a recent drop in recorded domestic violence cases.
“You’re going to see under-reporting because people are afraid. They’re living with their abuser," Attorney General Maura Healey said of a recent drop in recorded domestic violence cases.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Boston police reported fewer calls for intimate-partner domestic violence in March and April than in the same period last year — a seemingly positive trend that nonetheless worries officials and advocates who fear victims are reluctant to report abuse while advised to stay at home due to a pandemic.

“You’re going to see underreporting because people are afraid. They’re living with their abuser," Attorney General Maura Healey said in an interview Tuesday. "It’s hard for them to make a phone call. It’s hard for them to go online even.”

Boston police fielded 1,114 calls for intimate-partner violence in March and April — down 4 percent from the same period last year, according to data released by the department Tuesday.

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Comparatively, during March and April, Boston police fielded 1,104 calls for violence between those who are not intimate — including roommates and relatives. That number represented an increase of 26 percent over the same period in 2019.

Those counts include reports of both simple and aggravated assault.

Boston police data show the number of domestic calls of the most serious nature, aggravated assault, have increased this year compared to the first four months of 2019. But that includes the months that predated the pandemic and the stay-at-home advisory meant to contain it.

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said last weekend that she believes that the numbers are not a realistic reflection of the violence occurring behind closed doors.

“With the fact that we’re all in our homes, this is a ticking time bomb, essentially, for victims of domestic violence, children who are abused and neglected,” Rollins said. She cited a drop in reported child abuse, attributed in large part to the inaccessibility of the teachers, coaches, counselors, and others who would typically alert authorities to suspected abuse.

During the seven weeks Massachusetts residents have faced a stay-at-home advisory, advocates have been expressing concern about victims trapped at home and highlighting resources that are still available.

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Healey’s office last week posted an online clearinghouse of resources for victims of abuse that has an emergency opt-out link that shuts down the website immediately. Her office is also distributing informational flyers in multiple languages to sites of essential services that remain open and that victims may visit alone — such as laundromats and grocery stores.

“My view is, we need to do everything we can to reach survivors and victims right now,” Healey said. “Social isolation has made it difficult for survivors to safely reach out for help. We want survivors to know that they’re not alone.”

Likewise, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito told residents at an April press conference that judges are available 24 hours a day to process restraining orders and that sexual assault nurse examiners are available at many hospitals. The state expanded its toll-free and confidential domestic violence hotline — 877-785-2020 — to handle survivors of sexual assault, as well.

Still, that hotline is receiving slightly fewer calls than it did last year, said Leela Strong, director of development and communications for Casa Myrna, Boston’s largest provider of domestic violence shelter and supportive services.

“Many people, when they are able to call, it is in hushed tones because they are with the abuser at home,” Strong said.

Rather than navigating a means of escape, most of the victims who are calling the hotline now are trying to find ways to stay safe in a COVID world, “and less about ‘how do I leave and go into a shelter,’ " Strong said. "Because there’s additional fears about congregate living right now.”

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Casa Myrna operates three shelters, which moved some individuals and larger families into hotels or suites to reduce the potential for exposure to the virus in group settings, Strong said.

“We’re still working out a plan for what we do when this is over, when the state has decided to reopen,” she said. “We’re never going to let somebody be without and we have a really robust rapid rehousing program.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert