Story By: M.E. Cagnassola
NEWARK, NJ — As New Jersey moved into the peak of COVID-19 in April, a Newark woman, escaping a savage attack from her boyfriend one night during the statewide stay-at-home order, ran from her apartment into the street and flagged down a police car.
A client of Essex-Newark Legal Services (ENLS), the woman filed a temporary restraining order (TRO) and ultimately won a final order of protection (FRO) against her abuser, according to Jose Ortiz, deputy director for ENLS.
Though it’s a victory for Ortiz and his team, who have been serving their primarily low-income clients remotely through the coronavirus pandemic, that case is in the minority. Domestic violence victims are burdened now with even more barriers to justice and protection in the era of COVID-19, and as quarantine rules begin to lift, legal aid experts are anticipating an avalanche of civil cases, both for TRO and divorce filings, quite unlike anything they have seen before.
Early on, Newark saw a spike in domestic violence calls to police consistent with nationwide trends, but local resource centers like the Essex County Family Justice Center and the Shani Baraka Women’s Resource Center noted a marked decrease in their call volume. Cities across the United States have made similar headlines, with some noting a startling lack of reporting of any kind.
Advocates have pointed to victims’ being in close quarters with their abusers as the cause, leaving victims presumably unable to safely place calls to hotlines. Ortiz said ENLS received a number of calls from victims who were both afraid to call the police or go forward with the legal protection process.
Fearing detention and subsequent exposure to the virus, many undocumented victims may choose to suffer in silence rather than make contact with the system.
“A lot of these victims are stuck at home and can’t get out, so that’s playing a big role in this. We had someone call us back in mid-April who was strangled and punched by the father of her young children, and she didn’t want to file a TRO because she’s undocumented,” Ortiz said. “The abuser threatened to report her to ICE if she called the police or reported him to the courts.”
Organizations like ENLS and the Essex County Family Justice Center also receive most of their clients based on walk-ins. The pandemic’s shuttering of government buildings has proved a major deterrent in a multitude of reasons for victims of intimate partner violence not to file restraining orders, which are civil matters, during the pandemic.
In lieu of the county family court building, all temporary restraining order filings were initially being done only at local police precincts, where there is a general lack of privacy. Interviews are conducted in lobbies, and Ortiz and his Managing Attorney of the Family Division, Aleida Piccini de Velazquez, say victims often aren’t comfortable filing there.
The county quickly pivoted to allow victims to file and amend restraining orders online. While filings are still fewer than average, the numbers are increasing steadily, according to de Velazquez.
“As soon as we really and truly lift the shelter in place orders, we’re going to get a flood of people coming in. I’m afraid of what’s going to happen,” she said. “We also don’t have enough interpreters. I don’t know how we’re going to handle the volume.”
In preparation for the deluge, county judges from criminal and other civil divisions have received training in order to hear domestic violence and other family law cases. But once those judges return to their assignments, Piccini de Valazquez says, another backlog will likely occur.
Criminally, reporting is still on an uptick, according to assistant prosecutor Dawn Simonetti, who supervises the domestic violence unit for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. Since the end of April, her office has seen a 9% increase, with many cases involving terroristic threats and alcohol intoxication.
Another unexpected consequence of COVID-19 in getting justice for victims has been victims’ fear of their abusers contracting the virus in jail if they cooperate with the prosecution, Simonetti said. Though criminal trials are on hold while the courts are closed, restraining order cases are being heard over Zoom, a practice attorneys are decrying as a farce.
“It’s making me crazy, it’s so upsetting to me,” said Simonetti, whose office is one of many in New Jersey objecting to the prospect of holding contempt trials over video conferences. “A Zoom final restraining order trial? Are you kidding me, being cross-examined on Zoom?”
Ortiz and Piccini de Valazquez’s echo these sentiments, saying that Zoom trials put victims at a disadvantage in a few ways. Many in Newark especially lack the access to the technology necessary to make the trial possible or are not tech literate.
Often, victims are signing on to trials with children at home, having to describe their abuse to a judge by way of a webcam.
“Victims are already nervous when they have to go to court, now they’re doing this process on zoom, on their phone, with a two-year-old in the next room crying,” Piccini de Valazquez said. “Where is she going to go? Where is her privacy? It also affects the witnesses, are they really being sequestered?”
Ortiz said beyond being unaccommodating to his clients, Zoom trials make it more difficult to establish credibility and present evidence.
“How can you determine credibility when you’re doing everything on video? I think it is beneficial to defendants because there is another additional barrier that you need to overcome to be able to get justice,” he said.
Mary Houtsma, Executive Director of the Essex County Family Justice Center, said that amid the myriad changes to the various systems in place to protect victims, nonprofits like hers are focused on making sure that victims get the messaging they need.
ECFJC, which provides coordinated services to domestic violence victims, launched an online chat platform during quarantine to better serve clients, is also seeing an increase in victims coming forward for help since March. Some have reported Zoom hearings taking as long as seven hours, and for self-represented litigants, trying to manage a court proceeding from a cell phone or laptop has been ineffective for their cases.
With everyone strained and processes slowed down, Houtsma said those who serve victims of domestic violence should prioritize one message above all: There is help available.
“Get information, know what your rights are, know how to navigate the process and have a safety plan that includes someone for them to contact if they’re in danger,” she said.
Readers can see ECFJC’s safety plan for people experiencing domestic violence during the pandemic here.
Here are some resources if you need assistance:
Crisis Text Line: text “NJ” to 741741
Family Helpline: 1-800-843-5437
Mental Health Hotline: 866-202-4357
Essex County Family Justice Center 973-230-7229
Shani Baraka Women’s Resource Center 973-757-7377
The National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 for TTY
(If you are unable to speak safely): log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.