This story is part of a special episode of Sound Ideas airing March 12, marking the one-year anniversary of COVID's arrival in McLean County. Find more stories in the series.
For the past year the pandemic has aggravated many drivers of domestic violence—substance abuse, financial worries, being stuck at home. But it’s also muffled the true scope of the problem, with researchers just beginning to understand if COVID caused a spike in domestic violence.
But one message is crystal clear: There are a lot of resources in McLean County to get help, and those on the front lines see several new options for attacking one of society’s most invisible crimes.
“Even people who know that domestic violence is happening, we just get so used to it and numb to it that we do kind of accept it, and that is dangerous,” said Mary Koll, a McLean County prosecutor who handles domestic violence cases. “There shouldn’t be any acceptable rate of domestic violence.”
There are conflicting indicators of whether COVID-19 has worsened the problem.
Last fall, prosecutors and victims’ advocates in McLean County said they had seen an alarming increase in not just the number of incidents, but also the severity, during the pandemic.
Koll said her caseload has leveled off in the past six months or so.
“It’s still higher than pre-pandemic, but it’s definitely decreased from where we were during those first six months (of COVID),” Koll said. Some of that may be a broader winter slowdown in crime, she said.
Normal Police took 379 reports of domestic battery in 2020, about flat from 2019, said Detective Jason Hollenkamp, who handles domestic violence cases.
“I don’t know that that tells the full picture, in all honesty, because it depends on how you look at it. Our mandated reporters, such as teachers, child care providers and clinicians, they’re having fewer interactions with the children and the family. Which obviously would be fewer opportunities to recognize or assess and report those signs of abuse, than they did before the pandemic,” Hollenkamp said.
There are no shortage of theories about the relationship between the pandemic and COVID—whether it’s cause or correlation. Koll, the prosecutor, suspects that the financial pressures facing families has made it even less likely for victims to cooperate with the prosecution. And, by one estimate that Koll considers conservative, 80% of domestic violence victims recant or are otherwise uncooperative.
Hollenkamp, the detective, sees all the nuance and emotional weight of this type of crime. He’s seen offenders use a family’s pet and someone’s immigration status against their victim.
“Domestic violence is a choice,” Hollenkamp said. “They’re not abusing everyone that makes them angry. They’re choosing when and where to create this abuse.”
Like many agencies that help victims, Bloomington-based Mid Central Community Action (MCCA) has had to adapt over the past year—fewer in-person services, but more telephone and hotline work.
That aligns with the findings of a forthcoming report from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. They found that during the stay-at-home period from March to June 2020, victim-service providers like MCCA pivoted quickly. They also sent more clients to off-site shelters, like hotels, to avoid congregate living situations, said ICJIA researcher Anne Kirkner.
“That’s an enormous amount of shuffling,” Kirkner said. “But we did not see a trend that said they lost ongoing clients. The trend we saw was people were able to continue their services with what appears to be relatively little interruption.”
The research did not find a major increase in new clients. They just don’t know why yet.
“It’s possible that new clients had some increased barriers during the pandemic and especially during the stay-at-home order. We just don’t know for sure right now. It’ll take some time,” Kirkner said.
However, in the last two weeks, Mid Central’s 24/7 domestic violence hotline has seen a “significant increase” in calls from those seeking shelter, said Michell Cervantes, the Countering Domestic Violence (CDV) program director.
“A lot of that has to do with COVID,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve even begun to see the full effects of what’s going on. We’re just warming up. Once everything lifts, people are just going to start running to us.”
And Mid Central and other agencies will be ready. They’re also ready with no shortage of ideas for how to attack domestic violence in new ways.
Some counties have specialty courts dedicated to domestic or family violence, similar to the specialty courts McLean County already has for mental health, veterans and those with drug addiction. And with additional funding, courts could expand the use of SCRAM alcohol monitoring bracelets that might act as a deterrent to the alcohol abuse that lays underneath in so many domestic cases.
Policymaking aside, Hollenkamp said there’s something simple we all can do: Watch out for your neighbors. Don’t assume it’s none of your business what’s going on next door.
“Everyone can do their part. If they suspect someone is being abused or abusing someone, they should call 911, at least to make sure everybody’s safe. Family violence is a crime. It’s a crime. And it can result in serious injury and even death. And people just need to become informed.”
Mid Central Community Action’s 24-hour domestic violence hotline is (309) 827-7070.
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