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Commonwealth Attorney's Office to extend domestic violence services, sees increase in domestic incidents during pandemic
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Commonwealth Attorney's Office to extend domestic violence services, sees increase in domestic incidents during pandemic

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Domestic violence is a perennial issue, and the Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office now has $600,000 more to fight it.

The influx of money comes during a pandemic that has forced greater stressors on many homes, including joblessness, furloughs and stay-at-home orders that could exacerbate abusive situations.

Earlier in the year, lockdowns drove concerns that domestic violence would increase in vulnerable communities, and nationwide trends have reflected this fear. Locally, the Lynchburg Police Department reports a marked increase in domestic incidents, though domestic assault incidents and domestic violence calls for service remain largely consistent.

According to Carrie Dungan, community relations coordinator for the LPD, domestic incidents include domestic abuse that does not escalate into assault or physical violence — a couple verbally arguing, for example.

Since January, domestic incidents in LPD’s monthly crime analysis report have ranged from 18% higher to more than 200% higher than the same month the previous year. The largest increase of 267% was in June, when reports of domestic incidents jumped from six in 2019 to 22 in 2020.

That same month, reported domestic assault incidents saw only a 10% increase, from 60 reports in 2019 to 66 reports in 2020.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Bethany Harrison said although domestic assault numbers and overall calls for service have not sustained a consistent increase, the increase in domestic incidents is still an alarming spike, one that reflects someone, whether it be a neighbor, a child or an intimate partner, resorted to calling the police to resolve or deescalate a domestic situation.

With $632,498 in grant money awarded to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office by the Department of Justice through the Improving Criminal Justice Responses Grant Program, the Lynchburg department plans to enhance the local criminal justice response to sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and protective order process.

With the four-year grant, the department will create four new positions: an hourly in-house investigator, a part-time domestic/dating violence prosecutor, a consultant to lead and further the Lynchburg domestic abuse response team and a part-time protective order advocate.

It also will support training for staff members and computers and equipment for newly hired staff. There is no local match required for the grant, and Lynchburg City Council finalized the appropriation of the funds in November.

At an October meeting where the grant was discussed, Ward III Councilman Jeff Helgeson said the reported numbers were “staggering” and he hoped the grant would facilitate helping victims of domestic violence through both protection and prosecution.

Harrison said the grant money will help to combat these problems, reduce domestic violence in the city and empower survivors to leave their abusers and seek safety.

“Each one of these positions helps us greatly in addressing intimate partner violence in Lynchburg,” said Harrison.

She said the department would use these resources to address high risk cases, and take proactive, preventive steps to address the threat of domestic violence.

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Echoing the national concerns, Harrison said though her office doesn’t have the data at this time to make a conclusive claim that the pandemic has caused an increase in domestic violence, they have seen an upward trend “borne out in the numbers” compared to last year.

“One does wonder because it’s been such a sustained increase throughout the year, as opposed to a blip,” Harrison said. “There [are] all these extra outside points of stress and friction that just add to what can already be a contentious relationship. Where intimate partner violence is looking for that dominion of control, and seeing all these other things becoming out of control in their life, and here is the person they are going to take it out on.”

The department first received the grant in 2016 for a little more than $400,000. It lasted about three years, and its renewal will allow the office to continue or renew programs it began in 2016.

Mary Booker, director of the victim/witness program within the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, was especially excited for the part-time protective order advocate hired through the grant in partnership with the YWCA Domestic Violence Prevention Center and Sexual Assault Response Program.

She said the advocate will walk those seeking assistance through the entire process — from filling out paperwork, to waiting to see the judge, to the aftermath of the hearing. She said it makes the process easier and more understandable, particularly when it can take several hours to obtain a protective order.

When COVID-19 first hit, Booker said she saw an increase in protective orders being filed. There are many venues victims can take, and several different ways they can approach the program, but she noted a marked increase in recent months.

Like Harrison, Booker said it is too early to claim a trend or conclusively give a reason for these increases in domestic incidents and requests for protective orders, but she said it’s possible that while stuck at home, even more signs of abuse would be evident.

“Any extra assistance for victims, any extra layer of assistance for them, for domestic violence and dating violence, is always wonderful,” Booker said. “We don’t want anyone to feel stuck, like there is no way out. If there is something holding them back, we want to do everything we can to help them find the resources so they can move into a successful life, and a safe life.”

Linda Ellis-Williams, Senior Managing Director of Victim Services at YWCA Central Virginia, said at-home stressors during the pandemic such as unemployment and children staying at home have escalated tensions toward abuse among local families — with the agency getting calls from families who haven’t experienced abuse before and previous victims experiencing worsening abuse.

According to data from reports the YWCA has sent to Central Virginia Continuum of Care, a local coalition fighting homelessness, there was a 13% increase in people seeking shelter from domestic violence this summer over last summer.

“With the abuse increasing, the average victim is experiencing it more and she’s experiencing it more often,” Ellis-Williams said. “So after a while of the physical, the mental, the verbal abuse, everybody has a limit, everybody has a breaking point. They’re not seeing a way out of it.”

She added some people in that situation have realized pandemic complications aren’t going away any time soon and home living will only get harder, which has made them more willing to leave.

Between the YWCA’s two shelters, she said the pandemic has caused some strain in that high crisis housing numbers that usually peak in the summer haven’t subsided much into the fall. She added the nonprofit can find arrangements for victims even when they’re at capacity.

Harrison said numbers can’t tell the entire story, and it’s impossible to capture what victims of intimate partner violence are experiencing during this year of high stress because of stay at home orders, virtual school, anxiety over personal health and job loss or a reduction in work hours.

“Even if our numbers were the same, domestic violence, because it is such a perennial issue, is such a regular problem that we’re dealing with, it is always needed to have these extra tools to deal with it,” Harrison said. “The goal is you are trying to break the cycle of violence for a number of people.”

Rachel Mahoney contributed to this report.

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