By Molly Sullivan

Domestic violence isn’t just on the rise in Sacramento County. It’s getting more violent.

Local authorities and service providers across the region are increasingly working to respond to a crisis that has emerged as a consequence of widespread COVID-19 lock downs and isolation.

“We quickly recognized that the isolation of quarantine put domestic violence victims in a much more vulnerable place – often trapped within the same walls and unable to communicate for help,” Dawn Bladet, assistant chief deputy of the Sacramento district attorney’s domestic violence unit, said in a presentation to the Board of Supervisors last month.

In 2020, eight victims lost their lives in domestic violence homicides, two of which were murder suicides. In 2019, two people died as a result of domestic violence.

And violent encounters, namely choking events, increased by 58% compared to 2019. Attempted strangulation is an increasingly important and worrying metric for officials to monitor since it frequently is a sign that a relationship could eventually turn fatal.

“It’s just an incredibly high predictor of an offender or an abuser who could potentially kill,” Bladet said to the Board of Supervisors.

“It’s the most vulnerable part of us as humans, the ability to breathe and live, that is now being controlled by the abuser,” she added.

According to a 2009 study in the Journal of Emergency Medicine, “Female survivors of non-fatal strangulation are 600% more likely to become a victim of attempted homicide and at least 700% more likely to become a victim of homicide.”

Attempted strangulations can often be overlooked in domestic violence incidents because there is not always obvious signs of injury. But, it can often be a source of serious injury later on, such as loss of brain function, loss of coordination, vision issues and seizures, according to a strangulation protocol presented to the county.

“The force needed to strangle someone is less than one may assume,” the protocol said. “While it takes just about 11 PSI or less to strangle someone into unconsciousness, consider that an average male adult’s handshake takes 80-100 PSI while 20 PSI will open a soda can and 6 PSI is all that is needed to pull a handgun trigger.”

If law enforcement or medical professionals are not trained to look for the signs of attempted strangulation, victims can miss out on the kind of care they need, Bladet said.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CRIMINAL CASES DECLINE

While use of domestic violence service providers has increased in the last year — primarily the Family Justice Center and WEAVE — cases referred to the district attorney’s office decreased last year. In 2019, 6,032 cases were filed, compared to 5,976 in 2020.

Bladet said the disparity is likely a sign that domestic violence incidents are not being reported to police. Many cases are backlogged because offenders have little to no incentive to resolve their cases since they are frequently bonding out and remaining out of custody or committing new offenses.

The Family Justice Center, the county’s one-stop resource for domestic violence survivors, saw a 112% increase in new and returning clients in 2020, said Joyce Bilyeu, director of client services at the organization, with many clients reporting the level of abuse had become more severe.

Bilyeu said she and her colleagues worked with experts to develop a strangulation protocol after noticing the sharp increase of cases in the last year. The protocol is meant to be a template for law enforcement and medical professionals when responding to a domestic violence incident that may involve an attempted strangulation.

The protocol has already been adopted by some regional health care providers including Sutter Health’s Child Abuse and Neglect program, she said, and they’re hoping for more widespread adoption with the help of the Board of Supervisors.

“The domestic violence work and strangulation work that we all do is really homicide prevention work,” Bilyeu said.

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