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Blythe McGregor, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review
One worldwide health crisis may have created a new one: data suggests stay at home orders due to coronavirus have resulted in an increase in incidents of domestic violence around the world. Governments failed to anticipate this consequence and, for many, aid offered weeks after stay at home orders were put in place may be too late. In some regions, reports of domestic violence are dropping, which experts say does not mean violence is not occurring. Likely the risks and roadblocks associated with reporting incidents during the pandemic discourage victims from seeking help.
Although this is a worldwide issue, this blog will focus on the discussion of COVID-19 related domestic violence in the United States. Part II will discuss what local courts and communities are doing to address the issue. Part III will evaluate whether these actions are likely to effectively alleviate abuse. Part IV concludes with the proposition that communities should continue to find creative ways of addressing this domestic violence crisis.
Although many sources of domestic abuse aid may still be operating during the pandemic, counseling victims while they are at home can be problematic. Many domestic violence help centers have moved operations online. Because abusers are also spending more time at home, victims may have difficulty finding a place and time to receive help when the abuser is unable to monitor communications. Victims may not have control over household electronic devices, allowing abusers to effectively cut off communication with the outside world.
Although domestic violence hearings continue during the pandemic, because of stay at home orders, judges may be less likely to issue protection orders. To address this issue while avoiding the risk of spreading illness in traditional domestic violence shelters, some nonprofits are providing hotel rooms for victims who have protection orders that prevent victims from living with an abuser. Fortunately, because courts have pushed back other trials and hearings due to the pandemic, judges may have time to be “on standby” to hear domestic violence cases. The National Center for State Courts suggested certain guidelines to state courts to institute procedural leniency during this time. These suggestions include exempting domestic violence matters from continuances or suspensions, extending the expiration date of existing protection orders until courts reopen, and conducting hearings virtually, when possible.
In Cincinnati, more than 70 people who had been staying in YWCA shelters have made the move to hotels to be more protected from the virus, with YWCA leaders working to raise funds to cover the cost of this move. Women Helping Women, a gender-based violence prevention organization in Cincinnati, experienced a rise in calls in March, with a drop in calls once Ohio’s stay at home order was put into place. Hotlines remain operational and a new text chat service gives victims another option to reach out for help. As for local courts, the Hamilton County Court of Domestic Relations continues to hear Domestic Violence/Civil Protection Order cases. Butler County Court of Domestic Relations also continues to hear domestic violence cases, with only litigants and attorneys allowed in the courtroom.
Overall, communities are adapting to unique circumstances, even if this adaptation was understandably delayed. No one could have predicted the rapid escalation of pandemic response, so the fact that communities were able to appraise the domestic violence situation and implement additional measures to help those affected within a few weeks is impressive. This does not mean that these measures are ideal and address every possible issue, however. Although community organizations have moved many sheltered victims to hotels, victims that remain at home may face a higher risk of abuse with nowhere to go. Advocates should focus their efforts on finding a safe place for victims to social distance, whether that be a family member or friend’s house. When possible, communities should use hotels as alternatives to shelters.
These solutions assume victims are able to reach out for help in the first place. Organizations with operational hotlines should proliferate points and methods of contact, such as providing a text chat option like that of the Cincinnati YWCA. Victims and advocates should use code words to respond to the increased risk of abusers monitoring communications. During counseling, advocates should focus on short term safety plans to keep victims’ home situations under control. Short term safety planning involves addressing current safety concerns and brainstorming ways to maintain safety as much as possible when living with the abuser. This is especially important while leaving the home and seeking outside help may not be safe or possible for victims due to stay at home orders.
Fortunately, courts seem to recognize the essential nature of domestic violence hearings. Still, courts should be lenient during this time to provide all victims with a reasonable path to a protection order. Courts should conduct virtual hearings whenever possible to provide victims with an alternative way to gain protection. Advocates and attorneys should ensure that victims have a safe place to quarantine should the court grant a protection order. If such a place exists, attorneys and/or litigants could emphasize the existence of such a place to a judge or magistrate. This would allay concerns that the victim would not utilize a protection order or that a protection order would lead to retaliation if the victim continues to social distance with the abuser. However, courts should not view the absence of another safe place to social distance as a bar to a protection order: community organizations are working to raise money to fund hotel rooms for victims and the duration and nature of pandemic-related movement restrictions is impossible to predict. If the facts presented warrant a protection order according to the law, the courts should grant one.
Unprecedented solutions, like the stay at home order, lead to unprecedented consequences, like increased domestic violence incidents. Although courts and the community have responded, communities should continue to put efforts toward creative solutions to reach victims where they are. Victims should not have to choose between risking exposure to the virus and attending court or obtaining counseling. Although this may be the reality for many, a combination of short-term safety planning and modified court procedures could protect those whose health and safety is ironically endangered by stay at home orders.
 Amanda Taub, A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide, N.Y. Times (April 6, 2020) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-domestic-violence.html.
 Ashley Southall, Why a Drop in Domestic Violence Reports May Not Be a Good Sign, N.Y. Times (April 17, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/nyregion/new-york-city-domestic-violence-coronavirus.html.
 See Taub, supra note 1.
 Southall, supra note 3.
 Vinny Vella, As Court Close for Coronavirus, Officials and Advocates Adjust to Protect Domestic Violence Victims, The Philadelphia Inquirer (April 6, 2020), https://www.inquirer.com/news/coronavirus-protection-from-abuse-orders-philadelphia-domestic-violence-20200406.html.
 Coronavirus and the Courts: Survivors of Domestic Violence, National Center for State Courts (March 24, 2020), https://www.ncsc.org/~/media/Files/PDF/Newsroom/Coronavirus%20Resources/Covid-and-the-courts-Domestic-Violence.ashx.
 Jessica Schmidt, Police, Advocates Report Domestic Violence on the Rise During Coronavirus Pandemic, Fox 19 (April 7, 2020) https://www.fox19.com/2020/04/08/police-advocates-report-domestic-violence-rise-during-coronavirus-pandemic/.
 Hamilton County Court of Domestic Relations, COVID-19 Response Update (April 15, 2020).
 Domestic Relations Division of Butler County Common Pleas Court, Public Release Related to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Public Health Issue (March 23, 2020).
 Kristin Swilley, Number of Domestic Violence Hotline Calls On the Rise Since Self-Isolation Period Started, WCPO (March 23, 2020), https://www.wcpo.com/news/coronavirus/number-of-domestic-violence-hotline-calls-on-the-rise-since-self-isolation-period-started.