By Guy Page
March 25, 2020 – “Stay home and stay safe” may be impossible for Vermonters at risk of domestic abuse, the Senate Judiciary Committee learned today. Domestic abuse-related 911 calls nationwide have increased since the Covid-19 State of Emergency began. Vermont reports are fairly low now, but state’s attorneys say it’s just the calm before the storm.
Committee Chair Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) today called domestic abuse “Vermont’s number one crime problem.” Covid-19 will make it worse in several ways, Judiciary learned. Solutions will require more state spending.
For starters, Covid-19 is tough on the perpetrators. More people are stuck at home. Forced staying-at-home is stressful even for strong families. High-risk abusers have “a pretty low tolerance, and Covid-19 is pushing the buttons they already have,” David D’Amora of the Council of State Governments Justice Center said. “We’re seeing this across the country.”
Substance abuse recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous have either been cancelled or else meet under more difficult “social distancing” conditions.
Vermont saw a spike in reported domestic violence after schools were closed statewide, but incidents have leveled off since then, Executive Director John Campbell of the VT State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs’ Department said. “It is the calm before the storm. We have to be prepared for that.”
For victims of domestic abuse, Covid-19 has played havoc with both fight and flight: seeking relief-from-abuse (RFA) orders, and staying at a battered women’s shelter.
For example, limited access to court offices during business hours means victims can no longer walk into a courtroom, talk with a clerk, fill out the paperwork, and swear an affidavit. They can still walk into the lobby, but must fill out paperwork on their own and drop it into a drop box. A court clerk will then contact the applicant and take their sworn affidavit over the phone. This process assumes the victim can read and write well enough, and has a phone. Not every victim does.
One plus is that the notarization requirement has been waived. Also, the after-hours RFA process, already in place, is working smoothly.
Access to battered women’s shelters is limited due to “social distancing requirements.” The same requirement reducing access to homeless shelters affects them as well, and the solution is the same: putting up victims in motel and hotel rooms. Police report that the established practice of separating people who are engaged in a domestic dispute has become problematic. For some people, there is simply nowhere else to go.
Counseling and other social work services are hampered by social distancing and office closures, Sarah Robinson of VT Network of Domestic Violence said. Physical and sexual abuse examiners are doing their best but the nature of the exam makes the job more difficult under new conditions. Telemedicine is playing a larger role.
Domestic violence offenders are not candidates for early release from the state prison system, Campbell said. Still, “some of the folks who are getting out and going back to stressful situations, we’re not sure how that’s going to work out,” he said.
Criminal courts are not immune from the Covid-19 threat. Caledonia County courthouse recently had to be closed and disinfected after a defendent loudly proclaimed he had Covid-19. In fact many inmates are claiming to have the virus. “We saw the same thing with the AIDS epidemic,” Sears observed.
To help solve these problems and keep at-risk Vermonters safer, Sullivan and D’Amora suggested two things: financial support for social service organizations, and streamlined regulations to help the helpers do their jobs.
During yesterday’s Senate session, Pro Tem Tim Ashe warned senators that from now on “We will have more people to keep safe, and fewer dollars to do it.” In a dismal fiscal situation that includes a likely $100+ million revenue shortfall, Judiciary learned today they will need significantly more money to protect and treat domestic abuse victims, detain and treat their perpetrators, and keep them apart.
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