Pandemic Barriers

Domestic violence cases, survivors in shelters have decreased but advocates say the data hides a wave of violence

The call came in to Esperanza Shelter's hotline in the midst of the pandemic—the woman had run into a grocery store and borrowed a stranger's phone to call for help. Her abuser was waiting outside. She didn't have a lot of time.

It wasn't enough.

The woman "panicked and hung up because, she said, 'He only sent me in for eggs and I've already been too long,' and then we never heard back from her," Anji Estrellas, executive director of the Esperanza Shelter, tells SFR, recounting the call. "And the abuse she described was really severe."

When COVID-19 first spread its tentacles across the country last spring, professionals who work with victims warned of increased danger for those living with or near their abusers.

Nearly a year later, advocates say anecdotes bear out their dire predictions, as exemplified in the story recounted by Estrellas.

Yet, figures from police show a decrease in domestic violence cases.

COVID-19 brought new roadblocks to victims of interpersonal violence: less time and space to call for help and more violent abuse kindled by pandemic stressors. Victims may also decide to stay with an abuser to avoid the possible spread of COVID-19 in a shelter. And there are simply fewer available jobs in the state now to help survivors gain financial independence.

In Santa Fe, the affordable housing shortage has also likely contributed to victims deciding not to leave a bad situation. There are far too few homes within reach of Santa Feans, particularly those in the low to middle income bracket, according to Tomás Rivera, director of the Chainbreaker Collective, a nonprofit community organization.

And even the units that are available are often studio apartments—not suitable for a mother and children, for example. Estrellas adds that many of her clients are on a two- to three-year waiting list for federal housing vouchers.

These hurdles to safety and support are feeding a data trend in major cities across the US: declining domestic violence reports that may be hiding a wave of violence behind closed doors.

In Santa Fe, the police department had fewer domestic violence cases in 2020 compared to 2019. At the same time, there's an increase in offenders in court-ordered counseling and more calls to crisis hotlines. Estrellas says this is a peek into the domestic violence that law enforcement data doesn't capture.

The Santa Fe Police Department saw a 12% decrease in domestic violence cases from 2019 to 2020, according to calculations the department provided at SFR's request.

But the shelter's Path to Peace program—court-ordered classes for convicted offenders—showed a 5.7% increase in the number of participants in 2020 over 2019 from 132 to 140, as well as a 17.7% increase in crisis calls.

"The good news is that during the pandemic, there were police arrests and court cases," Estrellas says. "This shows a slight increase in those who were court-ordered to work with us, so that also shows the rise of the violence during the pandemic."

However, 2020 saw drops in the numbers of residential clients and overall survivors assisted by Esperanza.

The shelter attributes the decline in residential clients and survivors in part to using alternate housing outside of the shelter. (The shelter has too many communal spaces for a pandemic world.) The shelter also put a new policy in place that allows survivors to stay longer—until they find housing or get a voucher from the government.

Other cities echo a similar decline in reports to law enforcement. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on the criminal legal system, examined police reports in Chicago, Austin, and Chandler, Arizona, from March through April 2020, and found that domestic violence rates dropped in those cities while calls for help increased—pointing out fewer people may actually file a report after a call is made.

"What COVID has really brought is the isolation, the stress, the at-home school learning, people losing their jobs to the food security issues," Marcos Zubia, director of development at Esperanza Shelter, tells SFR. "All those sorts of things are playing into what we're seeing in the sense that…when there's stress in the household, that causes the domestic violence cases to increase."

But even when a situation has become so violent it feels untenable, victims may have stayed with their abuser more often in 2020 because of a cost-benefit analysis. What is more dangerous: COVID-19 or violence at home?

María José Rodríguez Cádiz, executive director of the Solace Crisis Treatment Center, says victims have had to make even harder choices in the past year.

"Is it safer to reach out or to bear the violence? Is it safer to stay home than to be in a different environment?" Cádiz says. "Do I know, as a survivor, what to do in a time of lockdown? All of those variables can very well explain the numbers that we're looking at."

Solace Crisis Treatment Center, a nonprofit that offers victim advocacy and sexual violence prevention programs, also saw a drop in the total number of violent crime survivors assisted: 632 people in 2019 and 493 people in 2020—a 21% decrease.

Meanwhile, several bills are moving through this year's legislative session that could increase protection for survivors.

Gwyn Kaitis, director of policy with the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says the organization is working on Senate Bill 36, which would allow children and incapacitated adults to testify in criminal cases via remote video.

The coalition also supports Senate Bill 92, which would amend the missing persons act to allow victims of domestic violence to request confidentiality in their location if they are found and do not want their location known.

Cádiz, too, is closely following proposals that could support survivors of sexual assault and support rape crisis centers.

For now, she hopes both data and context will help the community understand the prevalence of interpersonal violence in a pandemic world.

"There were many barriers for survivors to reach out in the manner they would have done under normal circumstances," Cádiz tells SFR. "And that, to me, is the most troubling thing-—that the numbers that we have are actually just a fraction of what was taking place in reality."

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