By: Adiel Kaplan
Domestic violence homicides are on the rise in many cities around the country, according to preliminary data from local law enforcement. In at least two major counties, they have doubled — a reversal of multi-year declines. Experts attribute much of the alarming increase to the social and economic pressures of the coronavirus pandemic.
Annual national data on domestic violence murders is not released until well into the following year, but violent crime and homicides have increased this year in cities from Milwaukee to New York, and some cities are already reporting spikes in domestic violence homicides.
In Memphis, Milwaukee and Jefferson Parish, a New Orleans suburb, domestic violence homicides had equaled or surpassed last year’s total by Oct.13, NBC News found. In Tarrant County, Texas — home to Fort Worth — they had more than doubled.
In the Seattle area, there were 14 domestic violence homicides in 2020 through Oct. 8, equal to the combined total for 2018 and 2019, according to the King County District Attorney’s office. All but one of the 2020 homicides occurred after the governor issued a Covid-19 state of emergency.
It is too soon to draw conclusions about trends, or assign any statistical significance when working with small numbers, but any increase in domestic violence homicide is worrying, said Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“Hard national data is impossible to come by, but we know domestic violence is on the rise” during the pandemic, she said. “My bigger concern is those [victims] who aren’t reporting, particularly during this time when things are even more frightening and it’s potentially harmful, potentially lethal to call.”
As the pandemic stretches on, domestic disputes have turned lethal across the country.
In late July, a Milwaukee man strangled and killed his girlfriend during an argument, then put her body in a dumpster before turning himself in to police several days later, court records show. A month later, a Seattle-area man with a previous domestic violence conviction got into a fight with his girlfriend on their way home from celebrating her 23rd birthday with her family. He repeatedly punched her in the face before running her over with his car, killing her, according to a police report. Just last month, a man in Jefferson Parish fatally shot his partner in front of sheriff’s deputies who were responding to a domestic disturbance call made by a neighbor, the New Orleans Advocate reported. The officers then opened fire, killing him.
Domestic violence lawyers and advocates in eight cities told NBC News that anecdotal information supports their belief that during lockdowns victims have had fewer opportunities to report abuse or seek help. The reports that do come in are more violent and dangerous.
“When people reach out, they’ve experienced greater abuse and the situations are more dangerous,” said Sue Chandler, the executive director of Dove Inc, a domestic violence agency in Quincy, Mass. “The very conditions that keep us safe in the public health pandemic are creating greater danger for victims of domestic violence.”
Advocates, shelter providers and law enforcement work to reach domestic violence victims before things get deadly. But that work has become more challenging during the pandemic. Not only are victims and abusers facing more isolation and stress, but many of the ways victims first find help remain severely limited seven months into the outbreak.
While the tightest coronavirus safety restrictions from March and April have largely lifted, the hurdles for reaching victims have not gone away, advocates and lawyers said.
“We’re very concerned that we probably serve only a fraction of survivors out there,” said Lupe Artiga, the managing attorney for the Northwest Justice Project’s family law unit, which provides free legal aid in King County, Wash. With things largely functioning virtually, her team cannot be at the court to provide in-person services to people who walk in.
“There is probably a vast number of victims that aren’t coming forward because they don’t know where to look, or the system — maybe they try it on their own and it’s very confusing, and they give up.”
Women Against Abuse in Philadelphia, which provides shelter and legal services for victims, used to have lawyers at the court every day to serve people seeking help, said Molly Callahan, the nonprofit’s legal center director. Protection orders are now filed virtually, so her team has shifted to making outreach calls on cases referred by the district attorney.
“We’re really trying to figure out, since we’re not in the physical places we used to be, how do we make sure people know about us?” Callahan said.
Identifying victims of domestic violence as early as possible can be a matter of life and death. They are less likely to die once they’ve made contact with advocates, police or the courts, said Allenna Bangs, chief of the domestic violence prosecution unit for Tarrant County, Texas, which includes Fort Worth and Arlington.
“If you even have made contact for a regular assault or for a strangulation or for something, you’re less likely to die,” said Bangs, who also serves on a task force with advocates and police that reviews domestic violence deaths in the county. “We know statistically that most of the people that we deal with in the fatality review had not made contact with the system in some way.”
With abusers and their victims sharing the same space during lockdown, victims have less opportunity to call police. Add the lack of access to outlets where signs of abuse in the home often first appear — work, visits with family members, school — “that combination of things is going to cause more homicides. The violence is going to increase,” said Bangs.
She believes it’s already happening in her county.
On April 23, police in Arlington, Texas, discovered the body of a 65-year-old woman wrapped in a trash bag inside her home. Joseph Sudduth was charged with murdering his wife Sue Sudduth and then leaving her to decompose for two weeks. According to the indictment, Joseph confessed to his brother that he “snapped” and used a cord to strangle her during an altercation on April 11.
Sudduth is awaiting his trial on home confinement after being released from jail on bond. Tarrant County has not held any jury trials since February.
The county has seen 18 domestic violence murders (classified in Texas as interpersonal violence homicides) so far in 2020, according to the criminal district attorney’s office. Its previous high — 16 — came in 2016. A new chief prosecutor wanted to bring that number down, and began reforming how domestic violence prosecution worked in the county, including creating the team Bangs leads.
As part of that push, the DA worked with the local domestic violence agency, SafeHaven of Tarrant County, to launch a collaborative “high risk team” in 2017. The team, led by SafeHaven, brought together prosecutors, advocates and law enforcement to assess cases for indication of potentially lethal future violence and ensure the highest risk ones did not fall through cracks in the system.
It was working, team members told NBC News. Domestic violence murders were on decline for three years before the pandemic hit, with just eight reported last year. High risk teams like the one in Tarrant County are seen as a successful model to prevent domestic violence homicides, springing up around the country in recent years. The team in Cleveland, created a year prior to Tarrant County’s, is part of the Department of Justice’s Domestic Violence Homicide Prevention Initiative, and has been the subject of positive reports by Case Western Reserve University annually.
But Tarrant County’s team can’t keep up with all the potentially high risk cases that have come in this year, said Kathryn Jacob, the CEO of SafeHaven, who manages the team.
“There are easily 400 cases we could take on any given day,” she said. Jacob was able to hire a new case manager for the high risk team this year, for a total of four, an improvement, she said, but nowhere near enough. “There are thousands of potential cases. But the bigger the case load, the less effective your work is.”
With the court system hamstrung by the pandemic and concerns of overcrowding jails and violating due process rights, many domestic violence suspects have been released on bond.
In May, watching the number of domestic violence suspects and offenders out on bond grow and homicide numbers climb past last year’s count, the high risk team in Tarrant County made a decision: exclusively take on cases where the perpetrator is out on bond.
“We pivoted to focus on that high risk population and the bond condition,” said Bangs, the prosecutor. “The majority of these people are not going to go to shelter, but we need them to have a safety plan in place when we know that this is not going to get resolved in a timely fashion.”
The district attorney’s office has made other changes in recent months, including following up on misdemeanor family violence charges the day they receive them, when it previously might have been a week or more before a victim would hear from a prosecutor. But it’s an uphill battle, Bangs said. Two more interpersonal violence homicides were reported just last week.
Tarrant County is not alone in dealing with a surge of domestic violence bond cases. Jefferson Parish has seen such an increase in cases that the court expanded its domestic violence bond hearing days from three per week to four, just to manage them all. Cuyahoga County in Ohio has seen lower bond granted in more domestic violence cases since the pandemic began to avoid jail overcrowding. The county’s Witness Victim Services Center has a victim advocate at the court daily to “encourage higher bond” for alleged abusers “where appropriate,” said Jill Smialek, the center manager.
Yet both domestic violence agencies and prosecutors are bracing for budget cuts as the economy contracts, while they expect the need for their services to increase.
“I guarantee you that once we are out of the stay at home orders across the nation — whatever those look like — once things go back to ‘normal,’ we will see a jump in reporting to police or shelter needs,” said Glenn of the national coalition. “My concern is places having the capacity when this influx comes.”
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