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Pandemic puts new plans in play for anti-abuse advocates; The Retreat continues its work for clients

The pandemic has changed everything. And one change, which wouldn’t immediately be on most people’s radar, has been how those afflicted by domestic abuse and violence have had their worlds altered dramatically when society closed down to stop the spread of the virus.

“Calls to our hotline went down when everything shut down,” said Kimberly Nichols, director of development for The Retreat, a nonprofit organization that assists families throughout the East End who are experiencing abusive situations. The nonprofit offers a host of services from relocating or giving shelter to women and children who need to flee abuse, to providing counseling services to the entire family — sometimes together and other times individually. It also offers a 24-hour bilingual hotline, legal advocacy and prevention education along with emergency shelter.

Reliable or skewed?

According to NBC News, which canvassed numerous police departments across the country, there had been a slight uptick in reports of domestic violence with families and couples staying at home. The University of Bristol’s Center for Gender and Violence (U.K.) has done research showing that domestic violence and abuse always spikes during holidays and vacations, when a family is together over longer periods of time.

But numbers showing just a slight rise in incidents might not be accurate, and could be higher, since, as Ms. Nichols pointed out, the first two months when offices, schools and many work places shut down here, it was difficult for many women, and impossible for others, to make contact because they were literally “right next to their abusers” in the house all day and all night.

And with schools shut down, another opportunity to reach out was lost, said Regina Mysliborski, director of counseling at The Retreat. Ms. Mysliborski, who lives on Shelter Island, said that the numbers of calls and referrals The Retreat has received has gone up recently, with many people returning to work, and warmer weather allowing others in need of help to find ways to call. Cars in particular, she said, have returned as places of privacy for a woman to make contact.

Shelter Island Police Department report

Police Chief Jim Read reported that last month he noticed “a considerable change in the number of domestic incident calls and involuntary mental health transports that the Police Department was responding to,” with both number of calls considerably higher this year over previous years.

The chief provided the following data on domestic abuse calls to his department:

To date domestic calls for each year from Jan. 1 to May 18.

2020 – 15

2019 – 2

2018 – 3

To date mental health transports to Stony Brook for each year, Jan. 1 to May 18.

2020 – 8

2019 – 1

2018 – 2

“The stressors of COVID-19 and its relationship to other community concerns are considerable,” Chief Read said. “In some of the cases it’s hard to draw a direct connection to COVID-19, but when you look at the totals for the year to date and compare them to prior years, it would be hard to deny that there is not some direct correlation.

He added that if anyone needs help, they “shouldn’t hesitate in calling the Police Department. The community should also know that The Retreat and our town social worker are excellent places to get additional assistance.”

Taking action

When the shutdowns started on the East End, The Retreat took action early to get their staff working from home and keeping the emergency hotline open 24 hours a day. The staff also brainstormed new methods to help those in danger, Ms. Nichols said. “We launched a chat feature on our website, so women can get on and talk,” she added. “A great feature is that there is no record of it, no tracking, so they can feel free to speak. People are getting used to it and really like it.”

Virtual counseling is also a significant tool, Ms. Nichols said. “It’s a way to interact personally, like talking to a girlfriend.”

The Retreat has had an increase in referrals from other sources, with food pantries and church groups “reaching out,” Ms. Nichols said, “asking ‘What can we do?”’ Town Social Worker Lucille Buergers said she’d made a referral to The Retreat.

Helping out

During the first few days of the shutdown, The Retreat faced a problem of keeping food staples on hand for clients and their families who had sought shelter at The Retreat. “You’d be amazed at how much cereal and milk little kids go through,” Ms. Nichols said.

But people stepped up, with the IGA stores in Greenport and Southold donating gallons of milk, at cost, Ms. Mysliborski said. The second and subsequent donations included cereal, ice cream, cookies, “trunk loads of food,” she said.

Moving the food from the North Fork to East Hampton required “an assembly line of people,” Ms. Mysliborski said, of taking the supplies to North Ferry (Ms. Mysliborski’s husband, Tom, works for the ferry company), getting it across the Island to South Ferry where it crossed and was picked up in North Haven and on to East Hampton.

“Everyone acted above and beyond,” Ms. Mysliborski said.

The Retreat’s 24-hour bilingual hotline: 631-329-2200.