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Recognizing that home doesn’t always provide a safe haven, the Greenfield Mayor’s Task Force on Domestic Violence has continued addressing domestic violence during the COVID-19 emergency, with an eye on pandemic-related pressures.
For the past 15 years, a city task force has addressed domestic violence with an emphasis on public outreach and education. This past fall, the task force erected billboards, created posters and distributed flyers telling residents where to find help during the pandemic.
“Domestic and sexual violence are issues that need to be addressed from all different angles. It can’t just be a one-prong approach,” said Mary Kociela, the task force’s chair and the director of domestic and sexual violence projects for the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office. “To have municipal government willing and able to take it on – it’s just something that really gives it a lot of credence. If you’re a survivor, and you know that it’s something your town really cares about, I think it can really make a difference.”
In 2019, the task force surveyed Greenfield residents on their understanding of abuse and their knowledge about resources. In the survey, 93% percent said they would call 911 or intervene in an abusive situation. However, 38% didn’t know of programs that could help.
In response, the task force created informational posters and flyers, conducted social media outreach, and set up two billboards in October, during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. One billboard displayed information in English, and the other in Spanish. The billboards cost about $1,800, paid for with city funds and a private donation, according to City Councillor Otis Wheeler, who represents the council on the seven-member task force.
The pandemic has prompted fears that isolation, health and financial stresses would exacerbate tensions in fragile households. Closed-down courthouses, and limited access to outside supports can further isolate victims.
“There are many reasons that may be happening, but I think the main one is really that being confined to our homes for such an amount of time is trying for everyone’s mental health,” Wheeler said. “And it puts an abuser in a position where they have even more opportunities to manipulate a victim, or hopefully, a survivor.”
From March 16 to May 16, the National Domestic Violence Hotline reported a 9% increase in contacts, with 10% citing COVID-19 as a factor. In Hampshire and Franklin counties, which the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office serves, the situation was “eerily quiet” initially, Kociela said. Advocates conducted outreach, she said, to assure people that restraining orders and services were still available even if the courts were closed. Then the DA’s office started seeing more potentially lethal cases.
“In terms of high-risk cases, it’s been pretty unsettling,” Kociela said. “We’ve had a lot of cases that are very, very serious.”
Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said she was worried about the pandemic’s isolating effects. A springtime conversation with her police chief confirmed that fear.
“It was almost instantaneous – the minute we shut down the schools, they began getting an increase in calls,” Wedegartner said. “It just seemed like it was inevitable, that that would happen.”
The mayor emphasized Greenfield’s holistic approach and collaboration among the task force, the police and the local Children’s Advocacy Center. She said the task force, established about 15 years ago under Christine Forgey, Greenfield’s first mayor, demonstrates a long commitment to addressing abuse.
“We formed the domestic violence task force and codified it in our city charter to show how serious we were about the issue,” Wedegartner said.
When the city emerges from the pandemic, the task force plans to bring back an annual flag-raising event highlighting child abuse. And now that the mayor’s office has a communications director, Wedegartner said, she hopes he can help amplify the task force’s work for future projects.
“Domestic violence is going to be with us regardless, unfortunately,” she said.