Domestic violence cases surge amid stay-at-home orders

Domestic violence cases surge amid stay-at-home orders
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Police departments across the country are reporting a spike in domestic violence cases as stay-at-home orders put victims and their abusers in constant proximity.

Experts who study domestic violence say the increases, however, are almost certainly underreported because some victims cannot get away from their abusers to call police.

Departments in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and Seattle have said publicly they are seeing increases in domestic violence allegations.

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Chicago reported a 14.6 percent increase in the number of calls during the first week of April compared to the same period last year, said Aileen Robinson, domestic violence operations coordinator for the Chicago Police Department. She said the department expects those numbers to rise even more in the coming weeks.

“We already know that abusers are using this as a tool to manipulate not only victims, but law enforcement,” Robinson said. She said abusers can “manipulate” victims by intentionally exposing them to the virus or threatening to throw them out if they test positive.

Boston had a decrease in simple assault and battery cases from January to February, and then an increase from February to March. In March, there was a 22 percent increase in domestic violence in comparison to March 2019.

The Dallas Police Department reported a 20.3 percent increase in domestic violence reports from February to March. A Seattle spokesman said that city's police department reported a 21 percent jump in March, compared to the same month last year.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) reported a 12.4 percent decrease in domestic violence crime involving intimate partner aggravated and simple assault from January to February. Those figures then rose by 7.6 percent from February to March.

“LAPD along with all [domestic violence] service providers are trying to educate the community that we are still here and operating during the pandemic,” said Marie Sadanaga, an LAPD detective and domestic violence coordinator. “Some services have moved to telephonic only, such as victim advocacy and legal services, but they are still working.”

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Sadanaga added that the average number of calls related to domestic violence increased from 110 a day to 121 after the state’s stay-at-home order was implemented on March 19.

The increases are not uniform across the country. New York City's police department reported a 15 percent decline in domestic violence calls from last year, while police in Washington, D.C., said they saw no significant change.

But where there are spikes, the lockdowns that have either confined people to their homes or cost them their jobs are contributing factors, experts said. They pointed to unemployment, health concerns and the added stress of having children at home and out of school as factors that can exacerbate abuse conditions.

“Not only are many people confined to their homes, but they are also experiencing stressors that are known to increase the risk of violence, especially job loss and health problems,” said Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland. “People at risk of abuse might not have access to the supports and services they might normally have been able to take advantage of.”

Cohen said it’s possible the reporting rate from law enforcement “is lower for some of the same reasons the abuse rate might be higher.” Due to the stay-at-home orders, Cohen said, victims may be unable to seek help like before.

Congress set aside $47 million for domestic violence in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package signed into law March 27, including funds for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Fears about the coronavirus and its broader societal and economic impacts have fueled a rush on gun stores, where sales are sharply up in recent weeks. One industry analyst found sales spiking more than 300 percent over a three-week period in late February and mid-March.

That worries some activists who say more access to weapons raises the risk of domestic violence.

“Surging gun sales and shelter-in-place orders are leaving domestic violence victims trapped with their abusers, who, in America, have easy access to guns, and that is a deadly combination,” said Shannon Watts, founder of the gun safety group Moms Demand Action, in an interview. “We know that domestic violence spikes during times of prolonged financial stress. And then when you add into that, that access to a gun makes it five times more likely an abuser will kill his female victim.”

Jill Messing, a professor of social work at Arizona State University, said it is unlikely the lockdowns are causing an increase in the number of victims and abusers; instead, the spikes are coming from those who were already committing the abuse.

“If we think about domestic violence, it’s about power and control," Messing told The Hill. "And so anytime there’s something that an abuser can use to increase that power and control, I think that they would use it.”