Domestic violence help calls surge during COVID-19 pandemic

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Ross Weidner and Jonathan Fagg WLS logo
Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Domestic violence help calls surge during COVID-19 pandemic
Despite the clear uptick in calls for help, domestic battery charges and domestic violence prosecutions declined in 2020.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- In 2020, nearly 30,000 people called the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline for help. Advocates say the COVID-19 pandemic made some difficult home situations worse and fleeing abuse at home could mean facing a life-threatening virus.

Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-877-863-6338

"Survivors ... felt like they were in a universe of bad choices and didn't know how to stay safe at home or how to safely leave to a new environment where they would be safe and their children would be safe," said Amanda Pyron, Executive Director, The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence.

"It's a really horrible situation. Imagine needing to wake up in the morning, go to work, take care of your kids, because they're homeschooling, you're working from home and so was your abuser," said Mallory Littlejohn, Legal Director, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.

Data obtained by the I-Team shows that the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline received 28,749 calls for help in 2020. That's a 16% increase from the previous year and at its busiest the hotline received almost 150 calls in one day. Text messages for help also skyrocketed to 936 in 2020 compared to just 37 the year before.

"Every text message that you read you know read about is a person it's a person who's in a closet texting for help, hoping that to be heard," Pyron told the I-Team.

35% of callers needed help with shelter from domestic violence, the top concern in 2020. According to The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence, hotline operators were also able to help more than 500 survivors get to safety by calling them an emergency rideshare. All this, experts say, because vital lifelines such as being able to leave home for work or take the kids to a relative evaporated.

"The strengths that survivors were relying on to begin with had been eroded by the pandemic," said Pyron.

Despite the clear uptick in calls for help, domestic battery charges and domestic violence prosecutions declined in 2020. Cook County State's Attorney data analyzed by the I-Team shows a dramatic drop in domestic violence prosecutions. 22% fewer cases were reviewed by prosecutors in 2020 than the year before.

Court advocacy group Ascend Justice helps survivors file for Orders of Protection at the Cook County Domestic Violence on Chicago's near west side. They say, despite COVID-challenges, remote hearings have helped combat courthouse closures during the pandemic.

"Although it's not a perfect system what we've been able to set up during the pandemic has made our services and the court order have an order of protection, more accessible," said Danielle Parisi Ruffatto, Director of Emergency Services, Ascend Justice.

Cook County State's Attorney Office Statement:

Throughout the pandemic Cook County prosecutors continued to work closely and communicate with our advocacy and law enforcement partners to meet the needs most paramount to survivors to help keep them safe and informed. During this time we have reviewed and resolved cases when appropriate to do so through plea agreements - including securing protection orders as a condition of the plea. We also conducted in person and virtual ligation of cases when allowed by the court.

At the onset of the health crisis the CCSAO adapted to a remote screening review process which allowed DV survivors to have misdemeanor cases reviewed by telephone instead of in person screening. Additionally, at city and suburban court locations, our victim witness staff provides increased support services and resources to DV survivors.

While some litigation, including jury trials, has been paused because of COVID-19, we look forward to the re-opening of the courts as we work to secure justice and resolution for DV survivors and their families.

The I-Team also analyzed 2020 data from Chicago Police and found a 12% drop in domestic battery charges, the largest drop in at least 17 years.

"The way that COVID has kind of halted our criminal justice system is definitely a really clear indicator for why the numbers have dropped, even though the actual incidents are going up," said Littlejohn.

As with so many aspects of life with COVID, the domestic violence strains of 2020 are greater in minority communities, according to advocates, communities where police contact often isn't the first choice for survivors.

"Women of color have been disproportionately impacted by domestic violence, but during COVID Absolutely," said Parisi Ruffatto.

"We can help develop safety plans, without the police involved, " Pyron told the I-Team. "Police aren't safe for everyone and we have to think about black survivors, brown survivors, immigrant survivors, who are not going to feel safe calling the police in Chicago and we have to provide resources for them as well," she continued.

CPD Statement:

The Chicago Police Department has continued to make domestic violence response a priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. Victims continue to receive the assistance and referrals they need, and offenders continue to be arrested. The impact of the pandemic is systemic, having affected several partner agencies. But our commitment to enforcement remains the same.

Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-877-863-6338

The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence

Ascend Justice

Illinois Dept. of Human Services: Domestic Violence Victim Services