By Joseph Ostapiuk
April 10, 2020
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) rolls through New York City, quarantining people in homes across the five boroughs, some victims of domestic violence are being faced with a reality that forces them to be confined with their abusers.
“I think that everyone is stressed and while stress doesn’t cause domestic violence, it could certainly increase the frequency and severity,” said Kimberlina Kavern, the senior director of the Crime Victim Assistance Program at Safe Horizon — which operates within the borough’s Family Justice Center.
While social distancing measures are showing promising results across New York, the unintended consequence of Gov. Andrew Cuomo extending the state’s pause through April 29 is that victims of domestic abuse are being mandated to stay within homes that are potentially unsafe.
The new reality is causing a shift in the way domestic violence advocates support victims.
“We are sort of all-hands on deck to be prepared to serve victims in what comes next,” said Kavern, adding that Safe Horizion is “anticipating that we are in this for the long haul and that it’s likely to get worse.”
In mid-March, Family Justice Centers closed across New York City, as well as the facility in St. George, in response to the coronavirus pandemic and moved to serving victims — including those suffering from domestic violence — via phone and online.
Many Safe Horizon staff are currently working remotely, said Kavern, and all of its programs are still open and accepting new clients.
A main element in the transition of supporting domestic violence victims is the use of Safe Horizon’s 24-hour hotline, though Kavern said hotline calls declined slightly in the beginning of March — something that she said was “to be expected as people transitioned into this new normal of social distancing.”
Recently, however, Safe Horizon’s “safe chat” feature, which allows victims to chat with advocates on their phone or computer, has seen an increase in victims through early April. The increase in the use of the chat, according to Kavern, could be attributed to victims being in close quarters with others and not being able to verbally interact with Safe Horizon staff.
Citywide data from the NYPD from Jan. 1 through March 31 shows that domestic crime is down .6% compared to the same span last year, and that domestic violence crime is down 15.3% during the entire month of March 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.
Kavern said that she does not think the dip in crime rate “indicates a decrease in domestic violence,” but rather “indicates a decease in [the] victim’s ability to access services or call 911.”
“You may not be able to call someone for help when you are in a home with your abuser,” Kavern said.
While Staten Island-specific domestic violence data was not available from the NYPD, the Island has had a unique issue with domestic violence in recent years.
The NYPD’s 120th Precinct, which is on the Island’s North Shore, had the ninth-highest amount of domestic violence complaints by precinct in New York City in 2018, and had the seventh-highest amount of domestic violence offenders citywide, according to department data.
In response to the challenges quarantine offers domestic violence victims, the NYPD’s domestic violence officers have begun using phone calls to supplant face-to-face visits with victims, said department spokeswoman Sophia Mason, while also “sharing safety plans and cell phone access with them and carefully setting code words for them to use as they survive in close quarters.”
“The NYPD remains committed to working with all of the NYPD’s government partners to ensure that no one feels disconnected or vulnerable during this period of emergency physical isolation,” Mason said.
Safe Horizon has long-partnered with the NYPD through the Crime Victim Assistance Program, and Kavern, who began her career in the Domestic Violence Police Program within the 120th Precinct, said she has seen the department “move personnel around to make sure that there are officers to respond to everyone who needs a response” as the coronavirus affects approximately one in five uniformed officers.
Advocates within each police precinct are helping guide the department’s practices, Kavern said. “We want to make sure that they’re mindful that when they respond to these cases it’s likely that both partners are going to be home.”
Kavern said there is specific importance in “separating both people” and “making sure they’re questioning both separately” in an effort to be “mindful of the safety risks that we’re all thinking about.”
However, the reality of the coronavirus means that “When either the police leave or when a victim hangs up the phone … that person is still most likely in the home with their abuser.”
MCMAHON ‘WORKING TIRELESSLY’
District Attorney Michael E. McMahon said his office’s Domestic Violence Bureau and team of advocates “have been working tirelessly to ensure victims are still afforded the justice and protection they deserve in this ever-changing world.”
Domestic violence arrests are continuing to be prosecuted, according to Ryan Lavis, a spokesman for McMahon’s office, which has increased its “communication tenfold with partner agencies, including the NYPD, Safe Horizon, the Family Justice Center, the Mayor’s Office and other DA’s offices in order to communicate, pool, and discuss resources, and to develop new initiatives so that we are best serving our victims.”
Much like the NYPD and Safe Horizon, the coronavirus crisis has caused McMahon’s office to “develop new innovative ideas to continue to engage survivors and keep them connected to resources through a variety of socially engaging methods,” Lavis said.
“Above all, we want victims to know that this current crisis will not deter the Staten Island DA’s office from vigorously prosecuting domestic violence crimes, and we will continue to always provide a safe haven for survivors to turn to, especially during these challenging times,” McMahon’s statement read.
In other aspects, some resources for domestic violence victims remain relatively unchanged.
In situations where it is warranted, domestic violence shelters across New York City are still open with space available, Kavern said. The shelters have recently added an additional step in screening that asks individuals “if they’re feeling physically unwell in any way” with the ability to “connect them with medical services to get checked out before they enter a shelter.”
The additional measures are evidence that shelters “are trying as best as possible to be mindful of as much social distancing in the shelter as they can.”
Despite the available resources, victims could still be in immediate risk, which is causing some “really creative safety planning,” Kavern said.
In at least one instance, Kavern said Safe Horizon has heard of victims using non-verbal forms of communication to indicate that they are in danger.
“We’ve heard of victims doing something like putting a plant in a window to indicate they are unsafe,” she said, potentially notifying a neighbor who is aware of abuse.
While domestic violence incidents are currently down, it is possible that an influx of reports occur as New York slowly moves out of its current quarantine protocol, according to Kavern. “I think that that is definitely possible and something that we’re preparing for,” she said.
António Guterres, the secretary general for the United Nations on Sunday urged for governments to do their part in preparing as well.
“Peace is not just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for #COVID19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes,” Guterres wrote on Twitter. “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.”
Victims can call the NYC domestic violence hotline, which is 1-800-621-HOPE and is staffed by Safe Horizon advocates, the district attorney’s info line at 718-697-8315, or the Family Justice Center main line at 718-697-4300. And of course 911 for emergencies.