As health officials struggle to suppress the spread of COVID-19, many entangled in the U.S. court system, including domestic violence accusers and those with pending court hearings, are left with the difficult question of what comes next.
Several agencies have opted to incorporate teleconferencing and other remote workarounds to better support those in need, but for many victims of domestic violence, time in isolation can compound the dangers of living with an abuser.
“People are urged to stay home and to practice social distancing to protect themselves and others from being exposed to COVID-19. Unfortunately, home is not a safe place for many women,” said Susan B. Sorenson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse.
Sorenson noted the recent sharp uptick in background checks for firearm purchases through the federal government’s National Instant Check System. Background checks typically spike following massive media events like elections, major crimes and natural catastrophes, like global pandemics. While imperfect, background checks can give an indication of gun sales.
“I’ll be curious to see whether intimate partner homicides increase. It’s likely because that’s who people are isolating with — their families,” Sorenson said.
An estimated 900,000 women alive today have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner. Between 2010 and 2017, intimate partner homicides that involved guns increased by 26% according to a 2019 study published in the journal Violence and Gender.
“When survivors are forced to stay in the home or in close proximity to their abuser more frequently, an abuser can use any tool to exert control over their victim, including a national health concern such as COVID-19,” the National Domestic Violence Hotline wrote in a web post.
“An abuser may take advantage of an already stressful situation to gain more control.”
Cases In The Courts System
Courts across the country, including in Washington, D.C. and North Carolina, have made special provisions for abuse victims to mitigate fallout from the virus’ spread.
The Superior Court of the District of Columbia is limiting the cases it will hear until May 1, in line with health officials’ guidance to avoid public spaces. For domestic violence cases, this means that all stay away and protection orders, also known as Temporary Protection and Emergency Protection Orders, are extended until then.
In North Carolina, the courts are working to keep cases moving as of Wednesday.
“Domestic violence does not care one bit about coronavirus,” said Stephanie Satkowiak, a domestic violence specialist in the North Carolina Judicial Branch. “My directive right now is that it’s business as usual. Courthouses and clerk’s offices remain open.”
That means North Carolina domestic violence courts are still operating, though they are delaying scheduling hearings.
Victims of abuse can still apply for ex parte — a hearing of only one party in the dispute — or emergency orders.
In state courtrooms across Northeast Ohio, arraignments are becoming the priority so bail can be set, including for domestic violence cases. This comes in response to mounting pressure on court and jail officials to limit the number of confinements and make space to quarantine sick prisoners.
On the federal side, people are still being taken into custody when charged with offenses — and appearing before a judge before heading to detention.
Judge Barbara Lynn, Chief United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, says federal courthouses across the country are taking some of the most serious steps she’s ever seen.
To protect court personnel and the public, each district and circuit is deciding appropriate accommodations in concert with local officials. You can find the latest for each district here.
In North Texas that means federal civil cases and criminal jury trials are being postponed until May 1.
“It wasn’t really fair to require them to do that duty under the circumstances,” Lynn said. “They operate under very close conditions.”
In the interim, judges are leaning on video conferences for some hearings to avoid too much backlog while the system operates at a reduced capacity.
Lynn said she plans to continue her obligations to the court, even if she has to do so from home. And she believes other judges in her district are weighing likely sentences for offenders so they can move forward with sentencing proceedings.
“That means if someone’s sentence has already been served, we’d go ahead and have a hearing so that the person doesn’t doesn’t have to spend more time behind bars than they have to,” she explained.
Jails And Prisons
Experts have raised concerns of coronavirus spreading in jails and prisons, both among not-yet sentenced populations and more permanent occupants, through crowded, poorly ventilated facilities among inmates, and beyond to the unincarcerated as well.
As reported in a first-hand account by WAMU, staff at a Washington, D.C., jail last week wore protective face masks and gloves, while frequent reminders to wash or sanitize hands blared over the public announcement system.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which manages 122 prisons across the country, has suspended social visits to its facilities until mid-April and legal visits for the same period except on a case-by-case basis.
However, movement in and out of correctional buildings still occurs, particularly among employees.
“Since jail and prison staff and prisoners tend to be younger, one thinks initially that it’s not going to be a big problem,” physician Robert Greifinger said in an interview with NPR last week.
“But remember that staffs work shifts, they come in and out of the facility, and they may be bringing that infection home to people who have compromised immune systems.”
More than half of female victims of intimate partner violence in the U.S. are killed by a gun, and a July 2019 study found a higher rate of firearm ownership is associated with a higher rate of domestic violence homicide.
Nationwide, there have been efforts to strengthen protections for victims of intimate partner violence, including legislation that would limit abusers’ access to guns.
Maryland is one of 13 states, as well as the District of Columbia, to have enacted extreme risk protection orders, which authorize law enforcement to remove guns from the homes of dangerous people, including suspected abusers. In 2015, nearly 2000 women were killed by intimate partners.
For those isolated at home in an unsafe situation during the COVID-19 outbreak, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has suggested the following:
- Create a “safety plan”. Here’s how.
- Practice self-care.
- Reach out for help. Contact family, friends or reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
If you or a friend needs help call the National Domestic Violence Hotline:
If you’re hard of hearing you can email:
or videocall 855-812-1001