Even a small holiday gathering in the face of a pandemic can serve as a big enough window for folks to recognize signs of domestic violence among family and friends who may have been suffering silently for months.

These signs aren't always so obvious, like visual bruises and broken bones. So experts want you to know what to look out for.

"We're using the holidays now because we're expecting more social contact to occur," said Julye Myner, executive director of Center for Hope and Safety, a not-for-profit agency in Bergen County that helps adults and children rebuild their lives beyond domestic violence. "I would like for people to be deeply aware of how vulnerable people are when they are locked in their homes with their abusers."

A number of warning signs center around a potential victim's personality. The individual being abused could seem extremely anxious around their partner, or may be significantly less social and confident with everyone else, Myner noted.

"Another big sign, especially at the time of the holidays, is not having access to money or credit cards, or even a car," Myner said. "Or maybe the victim is receiving frequent calls or texts from their partner, and they're uncomfortable with it."

The Center recently increased its capacity for safe housing occupants. Calls to the Center's hotline, 201-944-9600, doubled heading into the fall.

When the pandemic first started taking hold of the Garden State, "calls went silent," according to Myner — likely because victims had no opportunities to be away from their abusers during lockdown mode. But calls picked up, along with their intensity, when stay-at-home orders were lifted months ago.

Professionals had expected to see a surge in calls related to the COVID-19 public health crisis, but quickly realized that many potential callers may be limited in their ability to speak up.

The statewide domestic violence hotline can be reached at 1-800-572-SAFE (7233). It can help direct callers to the resources closest to them, or just act as an ear to listen — not everyone who calls intends to leave their current situation.

According to the New Jersey State Police, there were 17,339 domestic violence arrests made in the state between Mar. 1 and Dec. 7 of this year, compared to 18,444 over the same period last year.

In order to help a loved one in an abusive situation, Myner said, withhold blame or judgement. Inform the victim about what you've noticed, talk to the victim about what they want, and let them know you're there to help, she said.

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