It’s no secret that one of the most common forms of crime is domestic violence. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience domestic abuse by an intimate partner in the United States. Nearly 72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner and 94% of those victims are female.
It would be safe to say that America (and most areas of the globe) have a significant problem with domestic abuse and it is a large perpetrator of crime. Domestic violence is already underreported due to the victim and abuser’s intimate relationship, but COVID-19 has created an unprecedented increase in the stress factors of unhealthy relationships.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and I was given the opportunity to talk with Astrid, a domestic violence attorney since 2019. Before that, she worked as a clerk for a judge who handled family law cases and at a domestic violence shelter in Los Angeles.
Together we were able to talk about issues pertaining to abuse in detail, discussing what drove her to this kind of work, the unique challenges survivors are now facing, and possible ways communities can take preventative action against abuse.
Astrid cites her own experience with domestic violence in childhood as her motivation to help others in similar situations. “I feel very grateful and privileged to have the opportunity to be on this side of the bench [and] help people,” she said.
Astrid believes that the pandemic has heightened tensions in homes due to new economic pressures and the stay at home order. She says, “One of the tactics that abusers use is isolation, so we’re heightening that isolation and intensifying it with stay at home orders. We’re safe from a virus but we’re not necessarily safe from violence.”
Astrid also believes the pandemic has caused a decrease in resources available to victims. Before the pandemic, “You would go to the front desk and someone would help you whereas right now we don’t have that interaction anymore,” said Astrid.
This has led to fewer victims feeling as though they can take legal action against their abuser and “fewer potential petitions being filed for protection orders yet we know that domestic violence is heightened,” says Astrid.
The resources that are available, such as police intervention, may not be the most equipped to handle domestic violence situations. Along with that, minority populations (who are disproportionately affected by domestic abuse) are treated unjustly by the legal system and have a distrust for certain resources available.
Astrid says, “People of color are under scrutiny, and police brutality is definitely at the forefront. So maybe calling the police doesn’t feel like the best option for some communities.”
It is these multiple facets of life such as accessibility to courts and a victim’s economic and familial ties to an abuser on top of COVID stressors that are overcomplicating a victim’s want to leave a domestic violence situation.
Even victims who pursue legal action are faced with unprecedented difficulties. Victims will have to retell their abuse stories multiple times to their attorney, judge, and often face-to-face with their abuser in court proceedings according to Astrid.
“That’s why it’s important for service providers to be trauma-informed so that the retelling doesn’t necessarily have to happen often,” she says. This is just one unintentional harm to a survivor’s psyche legal providers have to keep in mind.
There’s also the fact that legal action cannot guarantee safety. “This protection order is not necessarily going to solve all your problems,” Astrid said. The struggles such as housing and economic stability of survivors go beyond the court and continue into their everyday life.
Increased reliance on technology has also created unknown dangers to those within a domestic abuse situation. “Technology is a great resource but [it] can also be very dangerous. What we don’t think about is everyday usage. Every time you take a photo [it] has metadata that has your exact location. It’s not that hard to find; you can google search it.
The problem is people don’t know or think about that and so we go on with all these things we think are safe, but can potentially expose information you don’t want someone to find. So I think the fact that almost everything is virtual has created another way for abuse to be perpetuated. It’s an invisible evil people are not seeing,” says Astrid.
This only further reinforces the complexity of domestic violence and why it is so prevalent and unreported. This informs Astrid’s belief that each domestic violence case is different and should be accessed based on each victim’s unique circumstances.
“Even if from a legal perspective I have an opinion in these cases it’s very important that the survivor is at the center,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what your race, creed, religion, or socioeconomic status is, you can be touched by domestic violence.”
With that, Astrid also stresses the strength she has witnessed in survivors. “Survivors have a type of resilience and they also have their traumas. So they’re so strong yet vulnerable to dealing with those traumas,” she said.
This leads to one of the most under-discussed topics of domestic violence which is the mental health of a survivor post legal action. “My biggest takeaway from doing this is that the crisis is handled but then the mental health piece is often forgotten,” Astrid says.
“They’re extremely resilient but that doesn’t mean [they] can’t get help,” Astrid says, encouraging those within domestic abuse situations to seek the help available to them. “My goal is to give them what they need and for them to feel empowered to advocate for themselves.”
Astrid adds that the best part about her work is seeing this healing and growth within her clients and the dedication of those around her to fostering that support for survivors.
As a community, we can prevent domestic violence by looking at “how we support domestic violence survivors outside of policing. Policing is not necessarily the best response to domestic violence calls and that’s for lack of training or understanding of a situation,” says Astrid.
Often the best response to suspected abuse is not calling the police but neighborly action. “It’s nice to have those safety plans that should be community-based so that the person doesn’t feel isolated,” Astrid said.
Neighbors are more likely to understand what is abnormal for a family or couple than a police officer with no prior knowledge of a situation. While also calling 911 when necessary, neighbors who reach out make victims more likely to feel comfortable speaking up. Simple precautions such as this would improve the effective use of resources and strengthen community connection and thus outreach.
On an individual level, “Listen to the survivor. It’s important not to judge their choices but listen to what they need,” Astrid says.
As a society, Americans need to redefine how we view domestic violence and keep ourselves informed of the increasing complexities of abusive circumstances:
“Domestic violence does not only affect women. It affects men, members of the LGBTQ+ community, young and old, rich and poor— it affects everyone. They can all have abusive relationships even if it doesn’t look like what you expect,” Astrid says.
If you or anyone you know is in a domestic violence situation, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.797.3224 (7233) or 911.