A pandemic within a pandemic: that’s how advocates have described a recent surge in domestic violence. Since stay-at-home measures were first issued in March, reports of domestic violence have skyrocketed across the globe.
In Peoria, the numbers are grim.
Data from the Peoria Police Department shows that incidents of domestic violence in 2020 are on track to be more than double what was reported in 2019.
Carol Merna, executive director of the Center for Prevention of Abuse, said she’s never seen anything like it.
“The number of arrests for domestic violence, battery, aggravated battery during this pandemic have been stunning,” she said.
It’s not uncommon to see a rise in domestic violence during times of crisis. Events like natural disasters and economic recessions place additional stress on already tenuous situations. But the confluence of factors created by the global pandemic have pushed domestic violence into unprecedented rates.
“During the stay-at-home-order, there were days when that Peoria County arrest report was 100% arrests for domestic violence,” Merna said. “And we had never seen that before.”
According to Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell, 26% of bookings in the county jail have been for domestic violence offences: up from 17% from the same time last year.
“When you’re looking at all the other offenses that come in this building, a 9% jump is very significant in my opinion,” Asbell said.
But Asbell cautioned that numbers, however stark, don’t tell the full story. His office routinely responds to calls that may not result in an arrest, but point to an increasing strain in everyday life.
“We’re going to a lot of calls and sometimes even though there hasn’t been a physical altercation, you can almost predict it happening,” he said.
“That’s what a lot of the deputies are reporting back. When you’re just seeing this increase in tension in households for various reasons.”
Asbell said the pandemic has created a “perfect storm” of conditions that are producing highly unstable home environments.
“Isolation results in more tension, further compounded by unemployment rates and economics. That sometimes drives people to substance abuse issues, which comes into this conversation as well.”
And with the closures of schools and offices, families are often on top of one another, navigating the stress of learning and working from home. These stressors can lead to potentially explosive situations, triggering not only rising incidents of abuse, but more severe violence as a result.
Merna said that beginning in the spring, advocates in Peoria began to notice a disturbing trend.
“We saw a lot of volatility. I think the most the most alarming thing is that many of the cases were more violent than what we would see during a typical time before March.”
Data from the Peoria Police department shows that aggravated domestic battery is up significantly, particularly in cases involving strangulation.
Peoria reported 17 such cases for all of 2019. So far this year, there have been 30.
Statistics have shown that strangulation is a strong predictor of domestic homicide, meaning Peoria’s numbers - disturbing as they are - could portent something even worse.
Advocates worry that the increase in severe injuries may signal that victims aren’t seeking help until late in the abuse cycle.
Vickie Smith, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that the pandemic has made finding help even more difficult for victims, who may be reluctant to go to a hospital or shelter where they could potentially be exposed to the virus.
“I think that people are so afraid of going someplace they don’t know because of the fear of catching COVID. And that’s keeping them from making decisions that they might’ve made sooner or in different ways before COVID hit,” Smith explained.
Beyond fear of the virus, the pandemic has created conditions that can make finding help prohibitively difficult. In the immediate sense, victims trapped at home with abusers may not feel safe enough to call for help. Asbell likens the situation to being “under constant surveillance.”
But even for those who can reach out, help isn’t always available. The pandemic has decimated resources and eroded infrastructures, leaving victims looking to leave an abuser with fewer avenues of support.
“Childcare, job training, and some of the other things that we would normally have in a situation where someone is trying to leave a violent relationship – they’re disappearing,” said Smith.
“When you have all of these situations coming together, I think 'perfect storm' is an excellent way to put it.”
And with no end to the pandemic in sight, many worry that this perfect storm will continue to rage, bringing unprecedented levels of violence in its wake.
“I haven’t seen anything like what we’ve experienced overall this year in my career in law enforcement, or in the army before that,” said Asbell.
“I’ve just never in my experiences, working for 25 years, seen everything happen at once.”
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