Story By: Ashley Southall
As the coronavirus forces people to stay home, reports of domestic violence are falling in New York City, alarming the authorities.
One Queens man, angry that his children were crying, slapped his 2-year-old daughter and shoved his wife, prosecutors say. Another threw a glass baby bottle at his wife, enraged that she had left the house against his wishes during the shutdown.
A third beat his girlfriend so badly that he broke a bone in her face after she took a long time to run an errand, prosecutors said.
The attacks, described in Queens court documents, offer a glimpse of how social distancing and stay-at-home orders have fueled incidents of domestic violence in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, even though police have recorded fewer crimes.
Statistics actually suggest domestic violence is down in the city since the shutdown, even as it has risen statewide and around the world. Fewer victims of domestic abuse have been calling the police or the city’s hotline in recent weeks.
But the drop in reports is far from reassuring, officials said, and law enforcement officials and social workers say there are some signs strife is quietly escalating behind closed doors. Calls to some organizations that provide shelter to battered women, for instance, have increased sharply.
“Those stats are very scary,” said Melinda Katz, the district attorney in Queens, where domestic violence arrests have fallen nearly 40 percent. “The problem we think people are having is how to notify us.”
The strict measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus in the city also have raised hurdles — and increased risks — for people seeking help, officials and social workers say. With schools and nonessential businesses shut, victims have lost opportunities to find privacy away from their abusers and seek help, such as going to work or walking children to school.
Except for shelters, the physical spaces where victims could go to receive assistance — family justice centers, courts and nonprofit offices, for example — have gradually shifted operations online or over the phone. And the police and social workers have suspended home visits that are a crucial source of complaints.
The Police Department said that reports of domestic violence have “progressively declined” since the onset of the pandemic. The crimes, which include beatings, break-ins and killings primarily among couples and families, fell nearly 15 percent last month compared to March 2019.
The police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, has asked domestic violence officers in the precincts to reach out to people they know have been victims in the past or might be vulnerable and check on them. “What I’m concerned about is it’s happening and it’s not getting reported, and I think that’s a reality we should all face,” Mr. Shea said.
The reported downturn in domestic violence in the city contrasts with a spike reported statewide. For example, State Police troopers responded to 1,753 domestic violence calls last month, a 15 percent increase from March 2019, when there were 1,522 calls, a spokesman said.
The police agencies serve vastly different populations. New York City officers patrol a dense city where victims usually have other options than calling the police. State troopers, on the other hand, are often the only resource for miles in some of the state’s rural communities.
The split between the city and the state was also reflected in calls to domestic violence hotlines. Calls to the state hotline increased nearly 18 percent last month compared to February. The city hotline, operated by Safe Horizon, a nonprofit, saw an 11 percent drop over the same period, although use of its online chat service increased.
Some shelter providers in the city, however, have seen their phones light up. The Violence Intervention Program, a nonprofit that operates a shelter and serves primarily Latin American women, saw an increase of nearly 35 percent in calls to its help line in March compared to February, primarily from victims seeking emergency shelter.
Mohammad Mohebi, 27, the man who the police say slapped his daughter, was usually at work during the day, while the girl and her younger sister were at school or with their grandmother. His wife, a graduate student, was usually at school, too, but the couple and their two daughters were all sheltering in place in their apartment in downtown Flushing, officials said.
The woman who prosecutors say was attacked by her boyfriend had gone to a store only to find it was closed. She went to another store and returned to her loft apartment in Long Island City around 7 p.m.
There, she was confronted by her boyfriend, Azael Montejo, 35, who was visibly drunk, the woman told the police. According to a criminal complaint, Mr. Montejo hit her in the face, then threatened her.
“This is not physical,” Mr. Montejo said, according to the document. “If I am ever physical, you will not wake up in the morning.”
He continued punching her in the face several times, then wrapped his arms around her neck and choked her, the complaint said. Finally, Mr. Montejo picked up a trash can and hit her in the face with it, the document said. She was treated at Elmhurst Hospital for a facial fracture, swelling and bruising.
He has been charged with second-degree strangulation.
Margarita Guzmán, the executive director of the Violence Intervention Program, said many victims who called her organization for help ultimately decided against going into shelter for fear of contracting the virus.
She cited the example of a woman who called last month and said she wanted to leave her abusive husband, but she decided the risk of exposing herself or her infant to the virus at a shelter was too high.
“It’s really, for her, a choice between whether she stays with the devil she knows, or whether she risks what could be increased safety from the abuse but could also mean increased risk of the virus, and both with potentially lethal factors at the ends of it,” Ms. Guzmán said.
Sarah St. Vincent, the director of the Clinic to End Tech Abuse at Cornell University, said online counseling of people in abusive relationships has an unintended consequence: When victims are forced to have conversations with support workers online or on the telephone, it makes it easier for their abusers to monitor them at all times.
“We see survivors more dependent on technologies that they’re not fully in control of,” she said.
They have had to get creative, using strategems like code words to communicate with victims about their safety. Kelli Owens, the executive director of the State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, said that caseworkers on Long Island pretended to be a pharmacy calling to check a prescription when men answered victims’ phones.
But some victims are also effectively cut off from the outside world. Kavita Mehra, the executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women, said one client’s husband had disconnected her cellphone to cut expenses after losing his job.
Social workers say that because the city has so many virus cases, victims here are more likely than those elsewhere to have the virus or know someone infected or killed by it. As a result, some have chosen to prioritize their need to stay healthy over the need to be safe from their abusers.
Maureen Curtis, who oversees criminal justice programs for Safe Horizon, said that stay-at-home orders made it more difficult for victims to get restrictive orders of protection.
“Now with everybody being told to stay home, judges are going to be even more reluctant to exclude people from the home,” she said.
Ms. Guzmán, of the Violence Intervention Program, said that the focus on survival and added hurdles for many victims means the pandemic’s toll will not emerge for months.
“Folks are just in a bit of a frozen place,” she said. “The second the orders start being loosened is when we know that we are going to get a spike of people who are reaching out for services.”