How the Public Health Crisis Makes Preventing Domestic Violence Harder

By Ellen C. Schell

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What is happening with domestic violence as people socially distance and remain isolated in their homes? What is behind the increase in law enforcement calls for domestic violence reported by some police departments? Are there actually more incidents of domestic violence during the pandemic? How can we assist victims during these unprecedented times?

The New York State Bar Association is holding a webinar, “When Sheltering at Home Isn’t Safe: Understanding and Responding to the Impact of the Coronavirus Crisis on Victims of Intimate Partner Violence in New York,”  from 3 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, May 6. Speakers at the 1.5-credit continuing legal education course will discuss challenges accessing civil legal relief during the crisis, tips for safely communicating with victims during the quarantine and the availability of services statewide. It is free to members and $100 for non-members.

As you might imagine, definitive answers about domestic violence incidents during the pandemic are not easy to obtain. What we know about domestic violence has certainly conformed with what is being reported. Abusive partners often isolate victims from family, friends and other sources of support or assistance. Under usual circumstances, such isolation may be used very deliberately, allowing an abuser to maintain power and control. This public health emergency requiring people to remain in their homes to the extent possible plays right into the hands of those abusers.

This dynamic is exacerbated by difficult, or impossible, access to many sources of assistance victims may rely on. First, victims often develop safety methods that do not involve access to formal systems. There are many reasons victims may choose not to call police, go to court or even seek assistance from a domestic violence program. Those range from individual assessments about what might increase danger to a sense that those systems will not be able to help to simply not wanting “outsiders” brought into family matters. Victims may instead leave the home to go shopping, go to visit friends or family members or do other things that provide a break and a chance for things to calm down at home. In current circumstances, such informal safety measures are largely unavailable to victims.

Second, victims might have difficulty reaching out to seek assistance. How can they call a hotline if their abusive partner is within earshot and won’t be going anywhere? If they call the police, what will the response be? If they are dealing with a mandatory or precautionary quarantine, what will happen if the police respond? Will they be able to get into a shelter if they need it?

Despite these barriers, victims of domestic violence do continue to have meaningful access to formal systems designed to assist them. Domestic violence advocacy programs are essential services and are all functioning albeit with many staff working remotely. Domestic violence shelters have developed quarantine and cleaning protocols and adapted to social distancing requirements, and there are shelter beds available throughout the state. Law enforcement agencies are responding as necessary and providing safety for victims in dangerous situations.

In addition, new ways of providing needed access to services are being developed, both by New York State and by local advocacy organizations. The Governor’s Domestic Violence Task Force has been actively engaged for the past year in bringing state agencies, domestic violence advocates and other stakeholders together to radically reimagine what domestic violence services will look like going forward. The consensus has been that New York needs to be moving from a shelter-based model toward a more flexible and survivor-centered model, recognizing survivors as the experts in their own lives. Entering shelter is not the right option for all survivors for all kinds of reasons and so it shouldn’t be the first, or only, option provided.

The pandemic has upped the ante for creating and using some of the more flexible models, such as mobile advocacy. When no one is effectively able to get together, advocates need to be able to connect with survivors no matter where they are located. Programs are doing very creative work in this regard. Courts have also moved to a virtual court model, allowing victims to seek emergency Orders of Protection from remote locations, ensuring that even in the midst of a pandemic these life-saving orders may be obtained.

At the beginning of the New York on Pause provisions, there was a concern that we were not seeing increases in calls to the New York State Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline, or to local hotlines, that lined up with increases in calls that some law enforcement agencies were seeing. We surmised that victims might not be able to comfortably or safely talk on the phone. Governor Andrew Cuomo directed  the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence to provide a text/chat line service for victims who were not able to use the voice-only hotline. In what was a remarkably short time, that text/chat service came into existence, and is up and running, with 24/7 live text/chat connections with staff who are trained to assist victims. That service can provide supportive listening, safety planning and referrals to local domestic violence programs for victims or for those seeking information for friends or family members.

These are challenging times, and no one seems to know when we will be able to move on to whatever “normal” will look like. Whenever, and whatever that may be, victims will continue to need help. It is comforting to know that the New York State Bar Association is committed to working with the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, civil legal services providers and advocates to ensure victims have meaningful access to safety and justice.

Ellen C. Schell is general counsel at the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence.

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