(WGGB/WSHM) -- Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, several district attorneys have seen a spike in the severity of domestic violence cases in western Massachusetts. Staff at domestic violence shelters also told Western Mass News that they have seen an increase in calls for help.
"The hardest part is knowing I could of died alone by myself, but I made it through it," said one domestic violence survivor, who spoke exclusively to Western Mass News and did not want to be shown or seen on camera.
It all began one holiday weekend in 2019 when the woman took a trip with her then-boyfriend out of state in a secluded area. Things turned violent with no one to call for help.
"At one point, he dragged me out of the vehicle. I had to fight to hold myself into the car. I had bruises all over me. I had prayed, at one point, that God would save me." the victim explained.
Things escalated again back in the hotel room when she wanted to end the relationship.
"He flipped out, grabbed me by my throat, pushed me in between the bed in table, bed, and the wall. It felt like he had eight hands and he only had two. I had to protect my glasses, my face, my neck," the victim recounted.
She froze in that moment when he was choking her repeatedly - the one thing she credited with saving her life.
Two local district attorneys told Western Mass News that they have seen such cases of domestic violence, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic.
“It escalates. When we see suffocation and we see strangulation, those are lethality signs that are very on the top of the list. It is a precursor to a homicide," said Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan.
Sullivan told us that some of the cases that have been reported to his office during the pandemic have reached serious levels including broken bones and suffocation. Now, such cases are level, but the concern remains high.
"About domestic violence, it is one of the serious epidemics we have in our district. The economy does not control it as much just the cultural aspect that people abuse intimate partners and think they can get away with it," Sullivan added.
Because of the cessation of jury trials during the pandemic, Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington said such cases have been stuck in the court system.
"During the pandemic and somewhat, we saw an increase in the severity of domestic violence cases and now, we have this backlog of cases because there was a cessation of jury trials. We have a significant backlog," Harrington explained.
Sullivan also saw such delays and told us that some cases are two-and-a-half years old because they were pending prior to the pandemic.
"Those delays can create risk for people because they are out on bail and there is just that unknown factor. Will that perpetrator come back to stalk to look for that person at the grocery store or places of work?" Sullivan noted.
Marianne Winters, executive director of Safe Passage, an organization helping victims of domestic violence, said she is seeing an increase in the number of people working with counselors.
"Our counselors have the most full caseloads that that they have ever had. We could utilize more counselors and advocates," Winters said.
With regards to what worries winters about these severe cases being reported to district attorneys, she noted, "I worry about homicide. I worry about children being left in unsafe situations with the only safe parent being killed."
Luis Santiago, direct care supervisor for domestic violence and sexual assault programs at the YWCA, told Western Mass News that there have been more people seeking services this year than in 2020 and 2019. In 2019, the YWCA program served 355 people. That number jumped to 474 people in 2020 and 516 people so far this year.
Police in Westfield also told us they have also seen a slight increase in domestic violence calls with 617 calls reported during the time period of January 2021 to October 19, 2021. That's compared to 589 calls during the same time period in 2020.
In Holyoke, the number of domestic violence calls police responded to in 2021 has been lower than 2020 with 138 fewer calls, for a total of 306 calls during that same time period reported this year.
The problem, advocates told us, is the lack of reporting of cases.
"The problem is because of a lack of reporting, we don’t know how many cases of domestic violence are out there. A lot of people don’t report and others don’t know they are being abused. The stats can be inaccurate...A lot of people are not aware of what domestic violence is and how domestic violence tends to escalate and it is about power and control," Santiago explained.
The victim we spoke to said her case took more than a year through the court system and she said the man who abused her did not receive any repercussions.
As for her advice for those in similar situations, the victim explained, "Don’t shut your family and you friends out, trust them...Love doesn’t hurt. Love should never make you terrorized and no matter what you are going through, no one has the right to assault or hurt another human being like that."
Those needing help can contact:
- Safe Passage Northampton at (413) 586-5066 or (888) 345-5282
- YWCA 24/7 hotline at (413) 733-7100