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News / Health / Clark County Health

Domestic violence calls to Vancouver police up

Unemployment often linked to higher risk for victims being killed

By Jerzy Shedlock, Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published: April 14, 2020, 6:02am

Reports of domestic violence to the Vancouver Police Department started to climb in late February as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic began being felt locally.

According to data provided by the police department, the number of reports has been above average for the past four weeks.

“This is something that we were concerned about as soon as (Gov. Jay Inslee’s) stay-at-home order went into effect,” said Tanya Wollstein, a detective with the department’s Domestic Violence Unit. “Actually, a little before the order, because unemployment combined with previous domestic violence assaults is one of the highest risk factors for victims being killed by their abuser.”

Roughly 10 percent of Clark County’s labor force has filed for unemployment in the last three months since the novel coronavirus pandemic prompted a state-ordered shutdown of nonessential businesses, according to data released Thursday by the Washington Employment Security Department.

The 12th and 13th weeks of 2020 saw the greatest number of overall domestic violence reports in the past three years, police department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said in an email. There were 64 and 62 reports for the weeks, respectively. The averages for the weeks are 52 and 49.

Kapp said the police department will be keeping an eye on the numbers as the stay-at-home order remains in place.

Before the pandemic, an average of 20 people in the United States experienced physical domestic violence every minute, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

As the country locked down, law enforcement agencies nationwide reported increases in domestic violence. In Seattle, one of the first cities to experience a major outbreak of COVID-19, police reported a 21 percent increase in March.

It’s not just Americans who are now being forced to stay at home with their abusers. The New York Times reported that mounting evidence suggests that movement restrictions put in place to help stop the spread of coronavirus are increasing the frequency and severity of domestic violence worldwide.

Earlier this week, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on governments around the world to make addressing the increase of domestic violence a key part of their responses to the pandemic. Guterres said in some countries “the number of women calling support services has doubled.”

According to Time magazine, the National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that a growing number of callers say that their abusers are using COVID-19 as a means of further isolating them from their friends and family.

Detective Wollstein said her officers haven’t seen any examples of abusers doing things like threatening to throw their partner out on the street so they get sick, but there have been cases that otherwise would be uncommon. For example, a young couple with no history of domestic violence, in what was described as a healthy relationship, got into a physical, criminal-level fight when they both lost their jobs and began arguing over money.

“Their pressures and stresses are coming together in a way that people are not handling as well as they could be,” Wollstein said.

The detective said the police department has always put an emphasis on offender apprehension and providing services to victims, but Wollstein noted some alleged abusers may be released more quickly than normal due to current court and jail procedures. Officers are being encouraged to book alleged abusers into jail, so no-contact orders can be issued.

Wollstein said there was a concern that if people were simply given citations, a no-contact order would not be issued, and there wouldn’t be a court date until May.

Despite the Clark County District and Superior courts all but shutting down except for a handful of proceedings, petitions for anti-harassment and stalking protection orders, as well as review of criminal no-contact orders, are continuing. The District Court lobby is only open to process protection orders and to address other emergency issues.

The King County Prosecutor’s Office in late March set up an online system for domestic violence survivors to electronically file civil protection orders. Wollstein said she’s hoping something similar is set up for Clark County.

Deputy Prosecutor Laurel Smith, unit coordinator at the Domestic Violence Prosecution Center, said local court officials are looking into setting up a similar option. But for now, people are having to file for civil emergency protection orders at the courthouse. Meanwhile, prosecutors in the domestic violence unit have been asking for more no-contact orders in criminal cases.

“That’s because we’ve suddenly had more cases,” Smith said.

The unit has seen an increase in cases referred by law enforcement, as well as cases that are formally charged. The numbers are creeping up each week, Smith said. The jump in cases hasn’t been surprising.

“Domestic violence really is something that thrives in isolation,” Smith said. “It’s something that we anticipated — and unfortunately, it’s coming to fruition.”

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Reaching out

Service providers are coordinating to maintain and enhance help for survivors wherever possible. Vancouver-based National Women’s Coalition Against Violence and Exploitation and PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center partnered last month to start the Rape Victim Dignity Clothing program. It provides victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, both men and women, with something to wear after leaving behind their clothes as evidence.

Michelle Bart, co-founder and president of NWCAVE, said the program has since been expanded to help the homeless.

“People can no longer survive. They’re living in their cars. That only compounds the problems surrounding domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse,” Bart said. “We’re not only going to see deaths from coronavirus. In the aftermath, we’re going to have to deal with deaths from addiction and domestic violence, suicides. It just breaks my heart.”

Grant money is also being distributed. Community Foundation for Southwest Washington recently provided a $27,930 grant to YWCA Clark County from its COVID-19 response fund.

YWCA is continuing to operate its SafeChoice Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault programs. The organization’s advocates are available and doing their jobs. The only difference is they’re doing the work remotely, said SafeChoice program manager Nicole Peppers.

Helping people over the phone has a different tone when compared to meeting survivors face-to-face. The organization works diligently to provide an intentional safe space for them, Peppers said.

“Advocates are dedicated to their roles, and I think they’re doing a fantastic job, having to switch so quickly to remote work, and providing that sense of security as best they can,” she said.

When the stay-at-home order started, there was a lull in calls to advocates. Now, Peppers is hearing from her team that the frequency of calls is increasing. The callers are presenting complex safety-planning issues to the advocates, who are prioritizing tips on how to stay safe when in such close proximity to abusers.

“Stay connected to the people in your life, however you can do that. Ultimately, you may be connecting with somebody who is in a very unsafe situation right now while having to stay at home,” Peppers said.

Columbian Breaking News Reporter