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As ‘shelter in place’ remains, advocates fear for victims of domestic abuse

As ‘shelter in place’ remains, advocates fear for victims of domestic abuse

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As COVID-19, also known as “coronavirus,” spreads across the state and residents are being asked to shelter in place, victims of domestic violence are not only having to cope with the fear of the pandemic, but also with the increased risk of being quarantined with their abusers. 

Frontline advocates are concerned about the safety of this already vulnerable population and as services for victims begin to operate on a limited basis to comply with governor Gavin Newsom’s order, what’s ahead remains uncertain. 

For domestic violence service providers in San Francisco, it has meant having to close many of their community offices to limit the spread of the virus among staff and clients and are only continuing to offer the most essential services, such as the 24-hour crisis phone and text line, emergency shelter, and supportive housing services. 

“We’re really trying to work with our clients by phone, we are continuing to offer our hotline to help them continue to navigate, whatever their current issues might be,” said Kathy Black, executive director of La Casa de Las Madres, a domestic violence shelter and center provider located in the Tenderloin. “We are receiving referrals from hospital emergency rooms and from law enforcement and then just from individuals themselves who are calling in and asking for help, but we also understand it’s hard for people to call help if they’re sheltered in place with the person who’s hurting them.”

According to the 8th Comprehensive Report of the San Francisco Family Violence Council, which was published in 2018, people of color are disproportionately victims of domestic violence. According to the report, in cases reported where the victim was under 18, 47 percent were Latinx. In cases where the victim was over 60, 37 percent were Black. 

The report also noted that in 2016, the California Department of Justice learned that at least 38 percent of female homicides in California were domestic violence related. 

Illustration: Bhabna Banerjee

At San Francisco General Hospital, a La Casa advocate, who would usually be there to provide in person safety planning and support to victims who have been referred for services by doctors and nurses, can no longer meet physically with victims. Instead, those same services are offered by phone. 

“We’ve adapted as best we can to let everybody know, while the advocate might not be there at the hospital, they’re here at La Casa and contacting the individual and connecting them with the services,” said Black. “I don’t want anybody in the community to think that there’s no help available because there is help. Our advocates are answering the crisis phone and text lines and we want to reassure the community that although court systems are shuttered, the courts are continuing to process restraining orders.”

The continued processing of restraining orders on behalf of victims during the shelter in place order is also something that Emberly Cross, coordinating attorney for the Cooperative Restraining Order Clinic (CROC)  in San Francisco, wanted the community to know.

“I think that there was a misconception for a while that the courts were closed, or that legal services were not available and we’ve been trying to get the word out there that the San Francisco court is open. They are processing restraining orders, and legal services are open. CROC is still open. We are still helping survivors file for restraining orders, we have staff who are still working, we have volunteers who are still helping us,” said Cross. “There were definitely fewer requests for restraining orders filed last week, and I’m hoping that as more people understand the courts are still open, they will feel safer, they will feel better about filling those requests now.” 

In regards to the domestic violence hearings—where the courts determine if a temporary order will be turned into a more permanent order—they are still taking place every Wednesday morning in the San Francisco Superior Courthouse, but only in cases where the victims has children with the restrained party. Hearings for cases where there are no children involved are to be continued after the shelter in place is lifted, though the temporary orders are still being processed. 

One thing that has been recently enacted in San Francisco county because of COVID-19 is that people are no longer required to show up in person to their restraining order hearing. 

“The courts are allowing parties to appear at hearing by telephone, so if somebody is sick or is concerned about getting sick, they can ask the court for the ability to appear by phone … you can simply call the courtroom clerk and ask for permission to appear by phone and they’ll let you do that,” said Cross. “I was at court yesterday and several hearings went forward and the court did give litigants permission and that morning a client requested permission and it was granted.”

Still, advocates understand that these are precarious times for victims, who may not only be experiencing increased violence at home, but also increased isolation from their support networks. 

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“Abusers might use this as a means by which to further isolate, they may say: ‘If you go out, I’m not gonna let you back in, then you’re going to be on the streets and nobody’s going to help you.’ Or guilting victims and telling them: ‘If you go out, then you’re going to bring it back in here,’” said Black. “Those are real fears that people have and they’re afraid to take action, but we want people—victims and survivors—to feel like they can call for help.”

Cross echoed similar concerns about how the COVID-19 crisis is augmenting an abusive partner’s power over their victims.

“We are concerned about survivors who are now under the shelter in place order, who don’t have any respite that they are to get to get away from the partner who has been abusive,” Cross said. “They aren’t able to take the kids to school, to go to work, visit a friend, to go to church. They are just stuck at home with this person who has been abusive to them and it can now be much harder to escape.” 

Still, Black wants victims to know that their safety remains a priority during these times.

“If it was a choice between your physical safety and breaking the shelter in place, you break the shelter in place and get help,” she said. “We don’t want anybody to feel that they should stay. If they are concerned that they’re in imminent danger, then they need to call a hotline to get help or call 911 and get help.” 

For Cross, the pandemic highlights the resilience of victims of violence in the face of difficult circumstances.

“This is a population that is already vulnerable, that is already stressed out, that is already suffering from PTSD,” said Cross. “And to have to deal with the pandemic on top of it, to have to worry about every time they cough or every time their child coughs, I just can’t imagine the extra stress and strain that is being experienced by our vulnerable clients at this time. And I am in awe of their strength, in getting through every day.”