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Editorial & Opinion

A reflection on the state of domestic abuse and emergency needs in Rhode Island

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“We urge the Rhode Island General Assembly to increase the Rhode Island Works cash assistance benefit. The current benefit amount is just $6 a day per person, and has not been increased in three decades. Rhode Island is the only New England state that has not raised the benefit amount in nearly 30 years, and an increase is long overdue to lift families out of deep poverty – many of whom are survivors and their children attempting to rebuild their lives after escaping an abusive situation.”


As we reflect halfway through 2020, we are deeply saddened domestic violence has claimed the lives of several of our Rhode Island community members. To date, we have lost five Rhode Islanders to domestic violence homicides this year, the most recent victim being Derek Desjardin, who was 30 years old when he was killed by his roommate in June. 

Each of these victims deserved so much more. We honor their lives, and recognize victims and survivors are not statistics. Each of these fellow Rhode Islanders were loved ones and members of our community, and they are not defined by abuse. The lives of their loved ones are forever changed, and our communities have been impacted by this devastating loss of life – lives stolen by domestic abuse. Domestic violence affects us all, and sends harmful ripple effects throughout our state. 

We have collectively been facing many challenges since 2020 began, and the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified so many community needs that directly affect victims of domestic violence and their families in Rhode Island. As the state is gradually reopening in phases, the demand for services has remained.

In June of this year, we saw a 42 percent increase in calls to helplines and hotlines compared to June 2019. Social isolation and other barriers related to the pandemic have magnified domestic violence, and these continued spikes in calls have been consistent since “stay at home” precautions began. We are concerned these numbers keep climbing, and the latest numbers show survivors and their children still have pressing needs despite the state reopening. We know the long-term effects of the pandemic – especially the economic impact – will be staggering, and victims and survivors of domestic violence will be particularly affected. 

The epidemic of domestic abuse preceded COVID-19, and has only become more heightened during these unprecedented times. For those experiencing abuse, the public health pandemic emergency has layered one crisis on top of another. The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV) and its network of member agencies have continued to hear the overwhelming need for safe places for survivors to go, financial support and resources for survivors and their children and programs and strategies to prevent domestic abuse before it starts. 


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It is imperative programs serving as a lifeline for many survivors are strengthened. We urge the Rhode Island General Assembly to increase the Rhode Island Works cash assistance benefit. The current benefit amount is just $6 a day per person, and has not been increased in three decades. Rhode Island is the only New England state that has not raised the benefit amount in nearly 30 years, and an increase is long overdue to lift families out of deep poverty – many of whom are survivors and their children attempting to rebuild their lives after escaping an abusive situation. 

We are relieved and thankful Governor Gina Raimondo collaborated with us to expand emergency shelter capacity. The temporary increase in shelter beds provided lifesaving support for many survivors and their children seeking safety. A major barrier for survivors continues to be the lack of safe, affordable housing options. While our member agencies provide emergency shelter and transitional housing, there is still an unmet need for long-term housing options that provide a healthy, safe place to live survivors can afford. This is why it is crucial the General Assembly passes an affordable housing bond and joins our neighboring states in investing in a dedicated housing funding stream in the 2021 fiscal year budget, which would boost jobs and infrastructure development and increase the availability of affordable homes in Rhode Island.

We are also advocating for an increase in funding for the Deborah DeBare Domestic Violence Prevention Fund (DVPF), which supports strategies led by and within communities most impacted by domestic and dating violence. By increasing the number of schools, community groups and community-based agencies engaged in the public health approach to domestic abuse prevention, we can address root causes of domestic violence and prevent it from happening in the first place. With more resources for youth leadership, policy and systems change and public awareness strategies, we can end abuse for future generations. 


When we get the call from survivors in Rhode Island with their life-saving needs, we must answer. For more information about these initiatives and to get involved, visit www.ricadv.org.

How you can help: As relatives, friends, coworkers and neighbors, we can help keep victims and their children safe and prevent another tragedy. If you are in an abusive relationship or know someone who might be, or if you are looking for resources for a child who has witnessed domestic violence, call the Rhode Island statewide Helpline for 24-hour support and information at 800-494-8100.

Calling 911 if you suspect or witness abuse is an important step to take, but there are many other ways to help. If you know or suspect someone in your life is a victim of domestic violence, you can help that person stay safe. Listen, and express your concerns without judgment. Ask the person what you can do for them, and check in consistently. Help the person create a plan that will keep them safe when abuse occurs, and connect them with local resources. Additional information can be found at www.ricadv.org.


About the RICADV: The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV) is an organization dedicated to ending domestic violence. The RICADV was formed in 1979 to support and assist the domestic violence agencies in Rhode Island. The organization provides leadership to its member agencies, strives to create justice for victims, and raises awareness on the issue of domestic violence in Rhode Island. The RICADV’s network of member agencies provides a wide array of services for victims, including emergency shelter, support groups, counseling services, and assistance with the legal system. For more information about these organizations and services, call the statewide Helpline at 800-494-8100.

Tonya Harris is the Executive Firector of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV), an organization dedicated to ending domestic violence. The RICADV was formed in 1979 to support and assist the domestic violence agencies in Rhode Island. The organization provides leadership to its member agencies, strives to create justice for victims, and raises awareness on the issue of domestic violence in Rhode Island. The RICADV's network of member agencies provides a wide array of services for victims, including emergency shelter, support groups, counseling services, and assistance with the legal system. For more information about these organizations and services, call the statewide Helpline at 800-494-8100.