Domestic Violence, the Shadow Pandemic

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I recently attended the Stanford Criminal Justice Center Zoom panel discussion on COVID-19 and Domestic Violence. The panelists were CEO of Just Solutions Lisalyn Jacobs, Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and Chair of the Domestic Violence Unit for King County Prosecutors Office David Martin and Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Journalism at American University in Washington, DC, domestic violence authority and author of No Visible Bruises Rachel Louise Snyder. The moderator was Professor David Sklansky, faculty at Stanford Law School.

Domestic and Interpersonal violence are the shadow pandemics of COVID-19. Globally, nationally, within our state and in our community domestic violence is rising.  Rachel Snyder noted that web chats and texts to hotlines have increased, as well as domestic violence calls. Here at Peace House, we saw a 25% increase in our helpline calls for March and April since January of this year.  At the same time, reports for domestic violence are down and there are fewer related arrests. The panelists were asked to consider this counter intuitive situation and postulate why. Indications are that people are waiting for a higher level of violence before calling law enforcement.  Or, it could be that responses to calls are slower and departments are acting on higher levels of violence because of stretched resources. In Washington State (and Utah) where orders of protection can be processed online, there has been a rise in orders of protection. In most states orders of protection are difficult to procure, entailing visits to courthouses and other public buildings. In many states, there are no court arraignments.  David Martin observed that felony domestic violence in King County is up by 20% with greater intensity in types of cases. However, there is simultaneously less access to justice and consequently impaired accountability.

Domestic violence service providers have been overwhelmed as they simultaneously have had to find on-line platforms to deliver services, have an increase in demand and because of COVID-19 related precautions have had reduced capacity to provide emergency housing and assist in rehousing. As Lisalyn Jacobs described it, responding to this shadow crisis is like building an airplane while flying. Peace House Executive Director Kendra Wyckoff added to the analogy “planning and sourcing materials” while building the airplane in flight.

Moderator David Sklansky asked the panel if the COVID-19 crisis was redirecting domestic violence advocacy in any positive directions. Of course, if we look, we can find positives. First, there is a heightened discussion around domestic violence as a public health issue. As those of us who work in the domestic violence field understand, it is more a public health issue than a legal issue. Domestic violence is intergenerational and the trauma from abuse impacts the health of individuals across their life span. One panelist observed that the next generation of perpetrators are being groomed in their homes during this pandemic. Right now, at Peace House, 50% of our residents are children. We understand that violence has a huge impact on children, and we believe that community conversations are a great benefit of the pandemic. If domestic violence is seen as the public health crisis that it is, lessons that highlight the impact of trauma, support education on healthy relationship, and teach positive parenting skills will benefit our communities. Secondly, COVID-19 is pressuring legal systems to implement remote protection orders.  As David Martin put it there needs to be the same ease of access to protective orders as there is for “turbo tax.” The blending of technology with advocacy that is happening now will facilitate the prosecution of domestic violence cases in the future.   Lastly, Rachel Snyder entertained the possibility that offender treatment will improve.  Alms Center, which provides offender treatment, has found better attendance and engagement with the online platforms. Addressing offender behavior is key in stopping the cycle of domestic violence and interventions need to be meaningful and based in science to produce better outcomes.

David Sklansky also asked the panel if the response to domestic violence was taking any wrong turns. Panelists quickly responded with the weakened processes and protections of Title IX, the gender equity law, implemented by Education Secretary Betsy Devos on May 6. This rule narrows the definition of sexual harassment and mandates live hearings during which those accused of sexual assault are given the new right to cross-examine their accuser via a third party. This will have a chilling effect on victims’ willingness to report and reduces perpetrator accountability.

The panel also discussed the incarceration of women who were acting in self defense and the gendered orientation of the law. The panel felt that the criminal justice system had a long way to go on domestic violence reform. If you would like to get all of the details of this compelling panel discussion, it will be posted on the Stanford Criminal Justice Center website in a couple of days.