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MANSFIELD -- Domestic violence services are among those workplaces landing in the "essential" category, a significant declaration starting this week.

On Sunday, Director of the Ohio Department of Health Amy Acton issued a 14-day “stay at home” order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Ohio residents are ordered to stay in their home or residence, leaving only for essential activities. 

But some businesses and operations deemed essential will continue, including grocery stores, healthcare providers and domestic violence shelters. Under Acton’s order, victims of domestic violence or abuse are both allowed and encouraged to their homes and find a safe place.

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“Individuals whose residences are unsafe or become unsafe, such as victims of domestic violence, are permitted and urged to leave their home and stay at a safe alternative location,” the order states.

Hotels, motels, shared rental units and shelters are acceptable places to reside under the order.

“Domestic violence and sexual assault could be heigtened during this period,” said Katherine Ezawa, executive director of the Domestic Violence Shelter in Richland County. “We will be doing safety planning on the phone and assisting (callers) with any services that we can during this time.”

Domestic violence can take many forms, including physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological abuse or threats of abuse. 

A blog post from the National Domestic Violence Hotline said abusers might weaponize COVID-19 by threatening to withhold certain items like as hand sanitizer or disinfectants, by using information (or misinformation) about COVID-19 to intimidate survivors or keep them from communicating with others, or by preventing survivors from seeking appropriate medical attention.

Shelters in Richland, Ashland and Knox counties will be operating with limited staff, but continue most of their services, including shelter operations and 24/7 crisis hotlines.

“We feel very strongly that we have to continue to be available,” said Lori Jones-Perkins, executive director of New Directions, a domestic abuse shelter and rape crisis center in Mount Vernon.

“The reality is when people can’t leave their homes, there’s concern that can come with that. That’s why the best thing we can do is keep putting it out there that we’re available to talk.”

Shelters can help survivors of domestic violence make safety plans, find safe housing and connect them with additional resources in the community.

“If anybody is concerned about their safety, please call us,” said Rebecca Jentes, program director at Safe Haven, a rape crisis and domestic violence shelter in Ashland. “There’s somebody here 24/7. When in doubt, just call. Ask questions. We’re here.”

How can I help?

While area shelters are unable to accept volunteers during the stay at home period, there are ways to help.

Jones-Perkins encouraged people to watch out for each other and be aware of those who are suffering.

“Check on your neighbors,” she said. “If you hear something or say something, don’t hesitate to call (law enforcement).”

Jentes agreed, noting that social services agencies will be busier than ever.

All three shelters have donation information on their websites. According to Jentes, the shelter may soon be facing “trying times” due to a funding cut and the cancellation of an upcoming 5K fundraiser. Safe Haven is also accepting donated hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 to help those in need. Victims and survivors can call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY. If you’re unable to speak safely, you can visit thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.

The Domestic Violence Shelter of Richland County’s 24 hour crisis line can be reached at 800-931-7233.

Safe Haven in Ashland can be reached 24/7 at 419-289-8085.

New Directions in Mount Vernon is available 24/7 at 740-397-HELP (4357).