Since the shelter-in-place order went into effect in March, there has been a drop in reported domestic violence cases both locally and nationwide.
That flies in the face of conventional wisdom as many experts believe the pandemic is a perfect storm for domestic violence, noting that economic hardship, increased stress and new barriers to reporting violence would seemingly point to a surge in cases.
At Community Solutions, a nonprofit that provides resources for domestic violence victims, reported cases are down at least 65 percent since the shelter-in-place order went into effect. But those numbers might not tell the whole story.
“We’re getting fewer reports, but the ones we are getting, the victimization of these individuals are extremely severe,” Community Solutions Program Supervisor Alma Tovar told San Jose Inside. “You’re talking domestic violence, sexual assault and in some cases human trafficking.”
Santa Clara County’s Domestic Violence Death Review Team—headed by Assistant District Attorney James Gibbons-Shapiro—reported two domestic violence deaths in 2019, tied for the lowest number since the organization started tracking statistics in 1995.
There have been four domestic violence deaths in the county this year, with a little over two months remaining in 2020. Since 2010, the county has averaged nine domestic violence deaths per year, down from 12 a year from 1993 to 2009.
While the numbers are trending downward, Gibbons-Shapiro knows the work to curb domestic violence is far from done. “I think one of the things that has happened with Covid-19 is that crimes that happen within the home are more hidden than they usually are,” he said, “and they’re already a hidden crime.”
Domestic violence crimes have a greater chance to go unreported during Covid-19 for a variety of factors. Victims who might not come forward in the first place are less visible to friends, co-workers or strangers because they’re staying home.
“If victims are mostly at home and don’t go to social events or to the doctor where others might see they have a bruise or signs of abuse, the victims’ chances for getting assistance or a case file reported decrease,” Gibbons-Shapiro said.
One in four women will be victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives, and many of them don’t report or disclose abuse to the police and may even under-report domestic abuse in surveys, particularly during face-to-face interviews.
In addition, victims of domestic violence—particularly immigrant survivors—often have trouble accessing support to keep themselves safe.
In some cases, language barriers prevent them from reporting crimes. They may not know how to report a crime, or that this option or even a 911 number exists. That’s why education and awareness are paramount.
The DA’s Office, in conjunction with Community Solutions, Asian Americans for Community Involvement and the YMCA of Silicon Valley, have a partnership to operate three Family Justice Centers throughout the County where victims of intimate partner violence can meet with a confidential victim advocate, a prosecutor, the police and others who can provide help and support.
“We all play a vital role in victim advocacy,” Gibbons-Shapiro said. “The public takes domestic violence more serious now than a generation ago, and we’re glad for that awareness and hopes it continues to expand. One of the things we’re all working toward is to make everyone who is a victim of this crime to feel and believe the truth, which is they’re not at fault for what happens to them. It’s harder to get that word out during Covid-19, but I’m hopeful we’ll think of new ways to spread awareness.”
Tovar also remains optimistic that further awareness will lead to more victims of abuse coming forward and asking for help.
“I have faith in what we’re doing and really do believe we’re making a difference educating individuals of domestic violence abuse,” she said. “Maybe it’s not as fast as a turnaround as we would all like it to be, but we’re absolutely making a difference.”