Story By: Nashelly Chavez

As thousands of North Bay families spend weeks at home confronting the challenges of a global pandemic and mounting financial and emotional stress, law enforcement officials and nonprofits that help children and adults escape abuse say they worry about a surge in domestic violence.

They fear that statewide shelter-in-place orders, while necessary to combat the spread of the coronavirus, may isolate victims and contribute to a sense of helplessness as they’re forced to hunker down with their abusers without the reprieve of work or other daily tasks.

“It’s a pressure cooker,” said Dina Polkinghorne, the executive director of Project Sanctuary, a Mendocino County nonprofit that runs two 24/7 crisis lines for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. “If this is a household that already has tension but maybe hasn’t had physical violence … it builds and builds and builds.”

In Mendocino County, the impacts of the shelter-in-place order on families are apparent, Mendocino County Sheriff Matthew Kendall said.

There were 10 more domestic violence reports, or a 25% increase, compared with March of last year, when deputies responded to 40 such cases. Child abuse cases saw an even sharper spike, Kendall said, increasing by 36% to 51 total cases in March compared with the same month in 2019.

Assaults generally were on the rise, with the agency responding to a pair of shootings in which both victims lived together in the past two weeks alone. In a separate incident, deputies arrested a Willits man in late March on suspicion of killing his wife in a domestic violence-related altercation. He had previously been booked into the Mendocino County Jail on domestic violence-related charges on three separate occasions since June, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Capt. Greg VanPatten said.

The increase in violence comes even as the department saw about an 18% drop in total calls for service this past March compared with the year prior, Kendall said.

“It’s been more violence than we’ve ever seen in March, as far as I can remember,” Kendall said, noting that calls for service historically drop off in March, when cold inland temperatures keep people indoors and out of trouble. “What I attribute most of this to is stress. Stress causes a lot of different things in the family unit.”

At Project Sanctuary, advocates who operate to the nonprofit’s two 24/7 crisis lines have also noticed an uptick in calls, which began about a week after Mendocino County health officials enacted shelter-in-place orders on March 18, Polkinghorne said.

Many were from people who needed help with getting restraining orders from local judges, Polkinghorne said.

To keep services running during the pandemic, the nonprofit has moved counseling services and legal advocacy work — such as applying for a restraining order — online. Its crisis hotlines, one for inland Mendocino County and the other for the coast, continue to operate around the clock and each has English and Spanish-speaking advocates available, Polkinghorne added.

The nonprofit’s shelter, which has started screening new visitors for signs of the virus to ensure they don’t expose others to the illness, is also still running and the organization has acquired additional temporary housing for people fleeing abusers amid the pandemic.

“We can hide, we can help, we can protect,” Polkinghorne said.

In Sonoma County, the nonprofit Legal Aid of Sonoma County, which assists people seeking restraining orders, has reported a similar uptick. The nonprofit opened 40 new restraining order cases between March 18 and Monday, a 20% increase from that period a year ago, despite its offices at the Family Justice Center being closed, said executive director Ronit Rubinoff.

“Our phone volume has gone crazy, in general,” said Rubinoff, whose nonprofit also deals with instances of elder abuse. At least 50 calls last week were centered around domestic violence issues, she said.

Rubinoff said she is especially worried about the safety of Spanish speakers, who historically have sought her nonprofit’s help on a walk-in basis, rather than online or over the phone.

Like their counterparts in Mendocino County, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and police in Santa Rosa and Petaluma have seen a decrease in calls for help since the start of local shelter-in-place orders, though neither reported significant increases in domestic violence or child abuse cases.

Over the past three weeks, deputies documented three more cases of domestic violence compared with the same time frame last year, said Sonoma County Sheriff’s spokesman Juan Valencia. Deputies filed 24% fewer child abuse and neglect reports during that same time, down from 39 in 2019 for that same time frame.

From February to the start of April, Santa Rosa officers responded to 9% fewer domestic violence incidents than the year before, according to data provided by Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Brenda Harrington, who oversees the agency’s domestic violence and sexual assault investigations unit.

In Petaluma, domestic violence reports decreased by 25% and child abuse reports dropped by 33% compared with the year prior, beginning from when Sonoma County health officials announced they would require residents to shelter in place to this past Friday.

Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano warned those figures were only indicative of how many people were calling police for help, however, and not a complete picture of how many of those crimes were occurring in the community.

People may be more hesitant to call 911 if they believe local police are too busy to help or have other, more pressing issues to deal with in light of the pandemic, Savano said. Reporting such abuse is often difficult enough as it is.

What’s more, virus-related closures of school campuses and daycares and limited contacts with the outside world may mean that mandated reporters of abuse, including teachers and doctors, will have fewer opportunities to detect it, said Robin Bowen, the executive director of Sonoma County’s Child Parent Institute, a nonprofit whose mission is to end child abuse.

Despite the lack of a surge in reports of abuse in Sonoma County, agencies remain ready.

“In times like this, when there’s uncertainty over income and your ability to be able to go out on your own, sometimes people feel they can’t get away or won’t be able to get away from their abuser,” Savano said. “Our message to anyone out there that is experiencing violence is that there’s help.”

Madeleine Keegan O’Connell, the CEO of YWCA Sonoma County, which operates the county’s only 24-7 domestic violence hotline, says calls to the organization remain steady, but she anticipates a surge in weeks to come.

They, too, have shifted from in-person therapy sessions to ones done over the phone, and their shelter is still operating, though with accommodations to allow for social distancing, O’Connell said.

“The spike will come, we’re not there yet mostly because of the shelter in place,” O’Connell said. “If you are sheltering in place with you abuser, you’re not able to privately get to a telephone to get to that call.”

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who opened the county’s Family Justice Center in 2011, a one-stop shop for people seeking resources for various types of familial abuse, said calls to the center were also unchanged. While the center closed its building because it was not deemed an essential business under county health orders, agencies housed there, such as Legal Aid of Sonoma County, the YWCA, and Verity, Sonoma County’s rape crisis center, were still operating remotely.

“The services continue to be in place to provide assistance through the Family Justice Center and our partners,” Ravitch wrote in an email. “All anyone needs to do is ask.”

Mounting stress caused by the pandemic is likely testing relationships between parents and children as well, said Bowen of the Child Parent Institute.

To combat that, the nonprofit has moved parenting classes and family counseling sessions to virtual platforms. The institute’s diaper bank, set up after the 2017 North Bay wildfires, has provided diapers and wipes for nearly 1,000 families since late February, an increase in demand for the assistance as local stores experience shortages for the product and job cuts impact families already in need, Bowen said.

“Parents are looking for support,” Bowen said. “What happens when parents can’t find the resources they need to provide for their families? The stress increases.”

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