By Sunita Sohrabji
Domestic violence (DV) has spiked alarmingly as victims are trapped at home with their abusers amid lockdown orders during the Covid pandemic. At the same time, traditional safety nets have largely been shut down, according to a panel of experts speaking at an Ethnic Media Services news briefing on Dec. 3.
Citing a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine, panelists noted that one out of every four women in the United States and one in 10 men are currently facing abuse from a spouse or intimate partner.
Financial stressors—including job loss, unemployment, housing instability and greater labor burdens as children remain at home instead of going to school—have contributed to the increase.
Black and Native American women are at greater risk for being killed by domestic violence, panelists said, while Black and Brown people are less likely to call police in DV situations because of distrust of law enforcement.
Domestic violence hotlines have seen a drop in calls as victims cannot find safe spaces from which to make calls. Shelters are closed or operating at full capacity and thereby cannot take on new clients. And many courts and law enforcement agencies have severely restricted the scope of their operations since the start of the pandemic.
Moreover, the Trump administration in 2019 severely narrowed the definition of domestic violence and intimate partner abuse to include only physical aggression, excluding psychological and verbal abuse, said San Francisco psychiatrist Ravi Chandra, one of the panel speakers and author of Asian American Anger: It’s a Thing.
Chandra also noted that the Trump administration has let lapse the Violence Against Women Act, authored in 1994 by then Senator Joe Biden. The Act, which must be reauthorized every five years by Congress, has been credited with a 60% drop in domestic violence from 1994 to 2010.
Fawn Jade Korr, senior staff attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid, spoke about how law enforcement and the legal system often fail victims of abuse, particularly women of color. Responses by judges and law enforcement officers differ depending on the ethnicity of the survivor, she stated.
“Who is the survivor? Is she a White woman asking for protection? Or is she a woman of color? Is she someone from a culture who is not comfortable talking about sexual abuse in open court in front of a bunch of mail judicial officers? Or is it a Black woman whose credibility is always going to be questioned more sharply?” questioned Korr, also stating that for those without legal representation, “the barriers can be insurmountable.”
The court system and law enforcement have been failing survivors because of a lack of adequate implicit bias training in law enforcement, said Korr.
“I think it’s really important for all police officers to be able to give culturally sensitive responses to survivors of domestic violence,” she said, noting that undocumented people and newer immigrants are going to feel uncomfortable sharing the details of their abuse with police.
Most of her clients don’t feel support from the police when they call to report a violation of a temporary restraining order by the abuser, or for help in getting him out of the home, stated Korr.
Bias must also be neutralized when survivors enter the courtroom, she said, noting that these are ongoing issues not specific to Covid but critical to successfully enabling survivors of domestic violence.
Other speakers at the briefing included HaNhi Tran, deputy district attorney in the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, and Johanna Thai Van Dat, staff attorney at the Santa Clara County’s Family Law Facilitator’s Office/Self Help Center.
Tran and Van Dat noted that Santa Clara County—home of Silicon Valley—has dramatically shifted its services so that victims of domestic violence can continue to easily access services. The county has severely restricted the number of people who can come to court, but victims can still appear for proceedings via video or phone calls.
DV advocates have expressed concern that, during the pandemic, victims cannot often find a safe place, out of earshot of their abuser, to participate in legal remedies via video or phone. Tran said that in Santa Clara County victims can get help from victims’ advocates at the District Attorney’s Office, who will book a conference room at which the survivor can safely listen to court proceedings and advocate for herself.
Tran said criminal proceedings against an abuser begin when police are called to the scene, sometimes by the victim, or often by a neighbor or family member. “Even in the midst of shelter in place, victims are still able to call the police to seek help, and criminal cases are still being filed and heard in criminal court. And that’s because the police, the DA’s office, and criminal court are essential services which have been allowed to remain open.”
A no contact restraining order removes the abuser from the home until the case is heard. A peaceful contact order allows the offender to remain in the home, but that person cannot physically or verbally abuse the victim in any way.
For a civil restraining order, police need not be involved, explained Van Dat, adding that such types of orders can also be used in cases of abused elders or adult dependents. Civil restraining orders last until the case is heard. A victim’s legal status is never asked about, she said.
“I remind people about the operational impact of domestic violence: children who grow up witnessing abuse often become perpetrators, or abusers or victims themselves. We need to break that cycle of generational violence,” said Van Dat.
Sunita Sohrabji is an Ethnic Media Services contributing editor.