Before public health officials enacted stay-home orders to slow the spread of Covid-19, Esther Peralez-Dieckmann, executive director of Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence, says her advocates were called upon by police about once or twice a month.
Those calls have since increased fourfold.
“We’re definitely seeing the abuse and the violence intensified; the calls that are coming in are becoming more complex,” she says.
Throughout quarantine, the number of cases of domestic violence reported has steadily increased, but with the court process affected by strict safety protocols, cases are stalled.
Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Unit Summerle Davis, who heads the agency’s Family Violence Unit, has seen the uptick as well.
And while the courts move forward with prosecuting domestic violence crimes, the proceedings have been impacted by Covid-19 protocols.
“But the district attorney’s office is open, we are still working,” she says.
The greatest impact to the court process has been the inability of the courts to proceed with jury trials, according to Davis. “We’ve had, kind of, this hiatus period during the shelter-in-place where we haven't been bringing jurors in and so we haven’t had any trials,” she says. “Trials that were in process were suspended. So basically right now we’re in a place where we have roughly 200 cases that are set, or that are a backlog of cases, and I would say more than half of those are our family violence cases.”
As criminal domestic violence cases increase, so do divorces.
Elaine Le, a family law attorney since 2015, says that while none of her current cases involve domestic abuse or intimate partner violence, colleagues have encountered cases involving intimate partner violence. Since the quarantine began, Le says she has had more people calling into her office to ask about how to proceed with a divorce. “The amount of new clients we had in June alone was huge,” she says.
Custody arrangements have also been impacted by the virus, she says, as divorced parents contend with co-parents who use the virus as an excuse not to abide by custody agreements, or who may be placing their family at risk by not quarantining effectively. She says that she and her clients have been fortunate. In every situation she has dealt with, parents have been receptive to mediation, and have been able to continue co-parenting despite their differences.
Like Davis, Le is able to move cases forward in court, but certain proceedings have been delayed, and most of Le’s work now takes place through calls or video-conferencing. Both Le and Davis note that though clients are frustrated with the delays, some survivors express relief that they do not have to enter the same courtroom as their abuser.
Perla Flores oversees the Solutions to Violence Division of Community Solutions, which provides direct prevention and outreach resources to survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking.
She says that while attending court by phone or video is helpful to some, lack of appropriate technology can also be a barrier to resolving a case in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, for survivors who rely on a translator or interpreter, newer technology can be insufficient. Like Esther Peralez-Dieckmann, Flores works directly with survivors, and has seen an increase in the number of people contacting Community Solutions through Safe Chat, a helpline that allows victims to discreetly talk with an advocate.
Flores and Peralez-Dieckmann both state that the 72-hours in which a victim of domestic abuse decides to leave are the most dangerous, a time when a victim of domestic abuse is more at risk of becoming a victim of homicide.
“It’s about power and control,” Flores says, regarding the reason abusers exhibit violent behavior or turn to homicide when a victim tries to leave. “The abuser feels they are losing control over a partner when they begin to leave, and that can turn lethal.”
Another risk factor that increases the likelihood intimate partner violence will escalate to homicide is strangulation. “A person who has been strangled is 750 percent more likely to die, especially if there is a firearm in the house,” says Kim Walker, the nurse manager of the Santa Clara County Sexual Assault and Forensic Exam Program, quoting a statistic from the Institute on Strangulation.
Victims of strangulation are often referred to the emergency room for treatment, where Walker can administer a forensic exam. Through a visual assay and forensic examination of the patient’s medical history, and potentially a CT angiography, Walker can find evidence of strangulation.
Walker says that strangulation can be fatal even if there are no visible marks on the patient’s throat, and that it can be fatal even days to years after they occur due to the formation of blood clots or brain damage.
That’s why she strongly encourages patients to show up for follow-up examinations. Since the shelter-in-place order, Walker says she has seen an increase in the frequency and severity of strangulations, and reported that 18 percent of sexual assault cases her unit has seen are presenting with symptoms of being choked.
“There’s a large gap in everybody’s knowledge with this,” she laments.
In addition to addressing the symptoms and effects of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence, Peralez-Dieckmann and Next Door Solutions seek to address the root causes of this public health crisis by offering therapy directly to the perpetrators of family violence. “There isn’t a perpetrator out there that doesn’t have some sort of history of being a victim of violence, being exposed to violence,” Peralez-Dieckmann says.
Next Door Solutions began offering a pilot program centered around offering therapy to convicted batterers in January of 2020, but the program was shut down in March when the shelter-in-place order took effect.
Though therapy for people who perpetrate domestic abuse are finding more support, perpetrators often do not seek or find help until they’re arrested—after they’ve already hurt someone. “We’re looking at things in a much more macro way,” Peralez-Dieckmann says. “How do our systems keep victims safe? How do they keep batterers accountable?”
“I would just like to tell them it is not their fault,” Flores says, referring to victims of intimate partner violence. “They are not alone, and I would really encourage them to call a confidential crisis line and explore what options they have.”