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The complex case of rising domestic violence during the pandemic

By Sudhiti Naskar

Prolonged stay-at-home and social isolation is hard for everyone, but for some it might be life threatening. Isolated from family and friends — and confined under stay-at-home recommendations — many are experiencing abuse they find hard to escape. As the pandemic rages through Nevada, cases of domestic violence continue to rise. 

The number of domestic violence cases in the region in 2020 is higher than the last four year average, per data by Northern Nevada Regional Intelligence Center. The data includes cases reported to the Washoe County’s Sheriff’s Office and Reno and Sparks police departments and calls for help in situations of domestic violence.

Yet, looking at data alone, one cannot easily understand how the current situation is impacting individuals and households. Per the latest data, Washoe District Court granted 107 Temporary Protection Orders (TPO) in November — significantly fewer than last year’s 154 TPOs granted.

Judge Dixie Grossman said that she takes the data “to a certain extent, with a grain of salt” because the data on TPOs may not fully reflect the domestic violence situation in the community. 

“Historically, if you look at domestic violence in times of crises, [like] hurricane Katrina,” and other major world events causing huge crises, cases of domestic violence surge. [A] Global pandemic I think would be akin to any of them,” said Grossman. In no way does a pandemic justify violence, she added, but it does have an impact on already volatile relationships. 

Nationally, Grossman said, there is “an uptick in intimate partner violence, and that is what we are seeing in Washoe County.” An increase in domestic violence “is absolutely true from what I understand.”

In April, a report by the United Nations Population Fund said that cases of intimate partner violence worldwide will increase by 20% during a three-month lockdown period. One can imagine that the situation has been made worse by nearly 10 months of on-and-off orders and directives to stay at home. 

As the unemployment rate remained at 6.7% as of November, it added stress to the lives of many; for abusers, unemployment can be threatening to their sense of self worth. According to psychologists, abusers may respond to such stresses by abusing drugs and alcohol – none of these things are helpful for a victim. 

Domestic violence is broadly defined as a constant threat of power and control over the victim. Oftentimes, victims feel if they don’t have a cut or bruise they cannot seek help. But, they are eligible for legal protection, counseling, shelter and additional help if they are being harassed or abused emotionally, even if the abuser has not raised their hands on them. 

NRS Chapter 33 which deals with domestic violence, mandates that in a domestic violence case when the parties are related by blood, or share a child or have been in a dating relationship, the cases are heard in a family court. All other cases of harassment, trespassing, and violence by a roommate, coworker, friend, stranger, ex-boyfriend, ex-girlfriend, and even brother, sister or cousin, are sent to the justice court. 

A grim situation

It is common for abused people to not follow through with a protection order, said Tracy Geraghty, protection order advocate specialist at Domestic Violence Resource Center (DVRC) in Reno. According to her, most of the victims have a history of abuse; they get out of the relationship, get back again and the cycle goes on. 

For most victims, coming out of an abusive relationship takes more than a phone call or one meeting. Geraghty sits with them, listens to their stories and validates their experiences. She lets them know she trusts them. Support like this can be life-changing for the abused; it leads them to take small steps to end an abusive relationship.

In 2020, DVRC assisted a total of 1,857 women, 138 men, and nine individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ with information, counseling and support. It is not uncommon for some of these people to not follow through with getting a TPO.

Geraghty said she is confident that cases of abuse are on the rise. Her phone rings more often than usual these days, she said. Getting five calls a day asking for help with TPOs has become usual. Before the pandemic, she received three calls a day, at most. Some days she did not even get a single call. 

A combination of reasons could be discouraging the abused to seek legal action. 

Social isolation

Even in usual times, it can be incredibly hard for victims to seek help. It takes various efforts for them to break free from the cycle of abuse and violence for good. 

During an ongoing pandemic, social isolation adds an extra layer of hindrance between the victim and help. Abusers are also able to assert their control over the victim more easily, according to psychologists. 

“In domestic violence cases, there is power and control often,” said Grossman, “but not always issues of isolation. But the pandemic has clearly further isolated the victims and clearly made it more difficult to seek out services… Or, you might have elderly family members that would normally be really, really supportive.” But the health vulnerability has changed these dynamics. 

Limited access to the courts, shelter

According to Geraghty, the fact that courts are all operating virtually isn’t helping the victims. 

“Honestly, I think the phone calls are happening more right now due to the lack of physical access to courts,” she said. “And I am getting a lot of emails as well, [people] needing assistance.”

Tracy’s eight years of experience assisting victims of domestic violence at the DVRC taught her that, oftentimes, victims are too stressed out or traumatized to even ask for help. The ease of just showing up and seeking help might feel more natural for a victim than having to negotiate forms, documents and applications virtually.

“The court will always be here for them.”

A lot of the victims don’t have access to smartphones, the internet, or a computer, either, said Geraghty. This is how the digital divide plays a role in how many people will end up seeking help, even though they might be experiencing a great deal of stress, anxiety and fear.

Currently, shelters for the victims of domestic violence are not a viable option for many, with a dorm-like living situation where the possibility of being infected with COVID-19 remains high. 

Immigration complications

Another reason victims might hesitate to seek help stems from the fear that their immigration status might be impacted in the process. Many in the Hispanic community and other immigrant communities are afraid to report abuse for the same reason. Language barriers, too, often play a negative role. 

For such victims, Grossman said that the door of the court is always open regardless of their immigration status. The court doesn’t ask questions about immigration status. Even a person with DACA status can apply for a TPO. 

“It just doesn’t matter. You are a human being, and there’s domestic violence. You are going to get your order,” said Grossman. 

In certain cases, the court might even make a decision to the “benefit of the abused person,” added Grossman. When deciding on immigration applications, if an applicant has a TPO against them, it may negatively impact how a judge views their application. Likewise, if a victim is abused and the court is aware of their struggles, they may positively consider their application for immigration.

Help is available

“It has been challenging for the agencies to help out survivors. I can’t imagine how much more challenging it is for survivors,” said Geraghty. 

Still, both DVRC and the legal system are trying different avenues to reach out to the victims. 

Because of social distancing measures in place, if victims cannot come to DVRC, they will still be helped in different ways with filling out the applications. Geraghty is sending the application form by email to the victims. “They can print it, fill it out, scan it or take a photo and send it back,” said Geraghty. 

Under certain circumstances, Geraghty is helping people on the phone if they don’t have access to smartphones or the internet, or don’t use technology. 

“I will review to see that they haven’t missed anything,” she said. “Because these women are going through a lot of trauma and stress, something they might have mentioned to me but forgot to put on paper when they are writing the application. It’s very important for the court to understand the seriousness of the matter and the nature of abuse. So I remind them, ‘Oh! did you want to add that?’” 

Then, Geraghty gives the candidate a packet  which has resources, information on community partners, safety measures, her business card, the business card of Washoe Legal and information for free legal help. 

Geraghty shepherds the victims through the process, noting that she “will be monitoring [their TPO application] throughout the day” and providing updates on the status of the application, emailing them a copy of the order when it is approved. Geraghty reaches out again when it gets close to their extended hearing. 

The act of listening to victims is very important, and DVRC is continuing to do it, said Geraghty. “Just knowing that somebody will listen to them, believes them, helps,” she said.  

“There is no judgment,” said Geraghty, on when a victim decides to seek help or end an abusive relationship. 

“I hope that they feel supported. I hope that they know there are community resources out there,” said Grossman. Whenever they decide to seek help “the court will always be here for them.” 

For people seeking help from abuse, here are some useful resources: 

Protection order help center: 775-328-3127 or email pohc@washoecourts.us.

Domestic Violence Resource Center: 24-hour hotline at 775-329-4150 
Website: https://domesticviolenceresourcecenter.org/

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