Domestic violence victims trapped at home with their abusers amid the coronavirus crisis are in more peril than ever — at the same time, the courts have vastly reduced the number of protection orders they are processing.
Family Court went wholly virtual on Thursday and staffing has been whittled to a skeleton crew, with just three judges handling all five boroughs via Skype hearings, down from the usual four to five judges plus magistrates in each borough courthouse.
This comes at a dangerous time for battered victims forced into close quarters with their abusive partners.
“We have one woman who is calling us multiple times a week from her bathroom whispering into the phone, praying that her abuser doesn’t hear her,” said Benjamin Segal, a spokesman for the Met Council on Jewish Poverty, which operates a domestic violence hotline.
The judges on duty, Mildred Negron of Queens Family Court, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Deborah Kaplan and Brooklyn Family Court Judge Alicia Elloras-Ally, are handling only a select few of the most serious cases.
“Court resources are being stretched extraordinarily thin for multiple reasons, including that some judges are in quarantine, and some judges have developed the COVID-19 and are struggling with the disease,” said Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at the nonprofit Sanctuary for Families.
“We are very, very concerned because we know there will be an uptick in domestic violence situations as victims are in quarantine with abusers and afraid to leave their homes,” she said.
Under the legal triage, the standard for securing what is often the most immediate and vital reprieve for victims — orders of protection — has been raised to matters of “life or death,” according to Leidholdt.
“We are worried about this standard at a time when victims are in greater danger than ever before,” Leidholdt said. “We are really concerned that victims may not be identifying their situation as an emergency when in fact it is.”
Already, the number of requests approved by family court for hearings have seen a staggering decline — 12 on Thursday, compared to about 85 on a typical day, according to a court spokesman. That’s an 86% decrease.
“We question whether the system is equipped to make these sophisticated, complex, high-level determinations,” Leidholdt said.
Petitions not determined to be emergencies are being dismissed or adjourned for a later date, Leidholdt said, adding that it’s unclear who is making the decisions and how.
“In this new regime, someone in the court system will screen electronically filed petitions and make life or death determinations based on inadequate information,” Leidholdt said. “The emergency standard has no basis in the law.”
She is calling on the court system to enlist private law firms and non-profits to help screen protection-order applicants.
For many victims, staying home may be more dangerous than the coronavirus itself — and experts foresee added stress possibly leading to explosive and deadly episodes of violence.
“We are hearing of domestic violence victims feeling even more isolated from their friends, family, and support networks. Perpetrators of abuse are using this [stay home] guidance as an opportunity to further exert control over their victims’ whereabouts and relationships,” said Nathaniel Fields, President and CEO of Urban Resource Institute for domestic violence victims.
Victim hotline operators worry that some victims who are under the thumb of their abusers in quarantine will put themselves at risk by seeking help, or are fearfully staying silent.
“We may expect call volume to decrease as the opportunity to make a private call for help is severely limited by constant close proximity and the fear of leaving home due to the risk of COVID-19,” Fields said.
The nonprofit Safe Horizon, which operates the city’s 800-621-HOPE hotline, said it saw a 7.5% increase in calls from March 1-17, compared to the same time last year. Calls since March 13, when the state banned large gatherings, are on par with typical daily call volume of about 200 per day, a spokeswoman said.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-7233, said a rising number of victims who reach out via text or phone mention coronavirus — 951 between March 10 and March 24. Call volume has remained steady.
Unemployment, Leidholdt warns, is among the most significant risk factors for domestic violence. A record 3.3 million Americans filed unemployment claims last week.
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