“J,” who escaped an abusive relationship, is worried about domestic violence victims at a time when everyone is under orders to stay at home. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“J” knows how difficult it is to escape an abusive relationship.

She met a man in 2015 and fell in love. But he soon began taking control of her life, forcing her to quit her job and isolating her from her friends and family. He starting going through her phone and computer, accusing her of cheating on him. One night she tried to take back her phone, and he punched her in the face.

It was another month before she could escape. The 30-year-old Gorham woman, whom the Press Herald is identifying only by her first initial because she fears for her safety, is still rebuilding her life.

But now she worries about other women trapped in abusive relationships. She worries about their safety at a time when public health officials are telling everyone to stay home to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The added stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, with no end date for staying at home, only increases the danger for victims.

“If I was in that situation now, I would be a sitting duck – not being able to go anywhere and being stuck with him,” she said. “I feel for these people who are stuck in that situation. I don’t know what I would have done.”

Public health officials say the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19, a highly communicable respiratory disease caused by a new coronavirus that is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu, is to stay at home.

“Home is not always a safe place to be,” said Rebecca Hobbs, executive director of Through These Doors, a nonprofit domestic violence service provider that runs a shelter in Portland.

Nearly one in four women and one in seven men in the United States have been the victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Advocates for domestic violence victims in Maine say it’s too soon to say whether state hotlines are experiencing an increase in calls since officials began closing public-facing businesses March 13 and ordering people to stay at home.

“The urgency of those calls seems to have amped up,” Hobbs said. “People are more worried and understandably so.”

Domestic violence assaults have been declining over the past six years, according to the most recent report of crime trends in Maine. Domestic violence assaults dropped by nearly 12 percent in 2018, from 4,178 reports in 2017 to 3,699 reports in 2018.

However, the state’s leading group working with victims of domestic violence, the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said last fall that it has not seen a corresponding drop in need.

About half of Maine’s homicides are related to domestic violence.

The nine member agencies constituting the coalition are staffing up their hotlines and finding other ways to keep their services available. However, they are no longer meeting face-to-face with clients.

Regina Rooney, a coalition spokesperson, said it can be difficult for victims to find time to call for help under normal circumstances, let alone when people are forced to stay home. But she wants people to know that call lines remain open 24 hours a day.

“We really want people to know we’re still here,” she said. “It’s hard to get that message to get out there through the deluge of news about closures. But we’re still here. You can still call us if you get that minute alone.”

Safe Voices, which serves Franklin, Oxford and Androscoggin counties, is one of the few groups that has a confidential text and web chat platform.

Local police departments and sheriffs offices are also reminding people that they’re available to help.

“I do think there is a legitimate concern of escalating DV cases as restrictions and closings continue and tensions build,” Piscataquis County Sheriff Robert Young said. “If you’re living in an abusive situation, the current uncertainty and isolation may be much more difficult with little chance to escape. We’re encouraging folks to keep in touch with each other.”

Westbrook police posted a message on Facebook on March 24, after making three domestic violence arrests. “Domestic Violence is never okay, and those laws aren’t being relaxed just because of the current pandemic,” the department said.

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark, who has had at least two officers test positive for COVID-19, said his department has responded to about 15 domestic violence calls so far this month, which is about average.

Clark urged victims to be proactive by finding a “safe” place within their own homes and to safely reach out for help if needed, whether it’s to a trusted friend, family, police or service organization.

“Although we are trying to reduce the number of physical arrests our officers make as much as possible, we will gladly make an exception in the case of a domestic abuser,” Clark said.

Meanwhile, Rooney said the coronavirus should not be used as a excuse to justify any sort violence in the household.

“Right now, coronavirus is not causing domestic violence,” she said. “It is increasing the risk for people who are stuck at home with their abusers, for sure. It is increasing the risk for people who depend on the networks of social safety nets that are being stretched to the max right now.”

Hobbs, of Through These Doors, urged everyone to keep in touch with friends, family and neighbors who might be at-risk. They can call the state hotline if they are looking for ways to help victims.

“I would encourage neighbors, friends and community members to not do social distancing to the point we’re not paying attention to our neighbors,” she said. “If you have someone you are worried about, you can call the hotline to see what you can do.”

“J” urged victims to be careful and not do anything to put themselves in harm’s way until they can safely get help.

“I knew I had to wait for the right moment,” she said.

Comments are not available on this story.