While the nation mobilizes against COVID-19, domestic violence victims are now in more danger than ever before due to stay-at-home orders and social distancing restrictions.
While staying home protects the general population from COVID-19, domestic violence victims quarantined with their abusers face increased frequency and severity of abuse due to unemployment, economic instability, and increased alcohol consumption. New York State for example, saw a 30% uptick in domestic violence reports in April 2020, compared to the same time last year. Calls to the state’s domestic violence hotline increased 18% from February 2020 to March 2020 alone.
In response to this crisis, Lynn Hecht Schafran, Legal Momentum’s Legal Director and Director of our National Judicial Education Program, was appointed on May 20, 2020 to the COVID-19 Domestic Violence Task Force, newly established by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Council on Women and Girls. Schafran and 26 other distinguished experts in the field were tasked with quickly looking beyond traditional service delivery models to develop innovative measures to address and respond to spikes in incidents of domestic violence during the pandemic.
Governor Cuomo accepted the recommendations of the Task Force in full and directed several state agencies to begin integrating these recommendations into their domestic violence services. These agencies include the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, the Office of Children and Family Services, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, the Office of Victim Services, the Division of Criminal Justice Services and the Department of Health.
The Task Force’s 10 recommendations are:
- Using New Technologies to Reach More Survivors
- Providing Flexible Funding to Meet the Diverse Needs of Survivors
- Providing More Housing Navigation Services
- Removing the Requirement that Domestic Violence Victims File a Police Report in Order to Access Victims of Crime Act Funding
- Addressing the Needs of Black, Indigenous and People of Color Survivors of Gender-Based Violence
- Normalizing Domestic Violence Screening During Tele-Health Visits
- Coordinating a Program to Promote the Need for Representation of Immigrant Victims
- Launching a Public Awareness Campaign to Highlight Financial Abuse
- Launching a New Prevention Initiative Specifically Directed at Educating Men About Domestic Violence
- Setting the Stage for Future Progress
The Task Force’s full report is available.
As champions of the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”) from its inception and through subsequent reauthorizations, we are especially pleased with the Governor's adoption of the recommendation to enhance and broaden technology platforms to reach more survivors and underserved communities impacted by intimate partner violence. VAWA requires confidential communication modalities for service providers’ interactions with clients. In this time of social distancing and remote work, this imposes a substantial financial burden on providers who lack and cannot afford to create the requisite technology tool. Thus, the shift in focus to federally-funded technology solutions to meet this important need is particularly welcome.
The work of the Domestic Violence Task Force is far from over. The Task Force, Schafran, and Legal Momentum remain committed to helping see these recommendations through to successful, on-the-ground implementation throughout New York State.
Moreover, the Council on Women and Girls has expressed its commitment to two long-term efforts of particular interest to Legal Momentum’s National Judicial Education Program: amending the definition of domestic violence in the New York Penal Law to include “coercive control,” and, with the Office of Court Administration, initiating a specialized pilot court to hear custody cases involving allegations of abuse.
Domestic violence is usually understood as spaced out incidents of physical or sexual violence. These are certainly aspects of domestic violence, but forced sex in domestic violence cases is a particular red flag for increased violence and potential lethality, as explained in NJEP’s web course, Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse: Adjudicating This Hidden Dimension of Domestic Violence Cases. However, for many victims, more traumatizing than individual incidents is unrelenting “coercive control” — the constant micro-regulation of every aspect of the victim’s life so that she constantly feels fearful and entrapped. Coercive control was criminalized in Britain in 2015.
With respect to a pilot court for custody cases with domestic violence allegations, a major problem in courts across the country is judges and custody evaluators who do not understand the profound impact of exposure to domestic violence on children. As Director of NJEP, Schafran has explored this in two articles for The Judges’ Journal, “Domestic Violence, Developing Brains and the Lifespan: New Knowledge from Neuroscience,” and “Evaluating the Evaluators: The Problem with’ ‘Outside ‘Neutrals”. We look forward to working with the Council on these long-term projects.
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