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Pandemic Brings More Domestic Violence To B-N — And More Serious Cases Too

Attendees at a rally
Cindy Le
WGLT file photo
Attendees hold their customizable "I Stand For..." signs to show support for domestic violence victims during a 2017 event in downtown Bloomington, organized by Mid Central Community Action.

Those on the front lines of domestic violence in Bloomington-Normal say they’ve seen an alarming increase in not just the number of incidents, but also the severity, during the pandemic.

The numbers are stark. From March to July 2019, about 215 new domestic violence cases were filed in McLean County court. During that same time this year, the number has more than tripled.

“My caseload is really stacked with very serious cases right now, in a way that it hasn’t been since I came to McLean County several years ago,” said prosecutor Mary Koll, who handles felony domestic violence in the state’s attorney’s office.

Koll has seen an increase in cases involving severe injuries, like broken bones, lacerations, or brain injuries. She also has seen more strangulations—a particularly dangerous type of domestic violence that some believe is a significant predictor for future lethal violence.

Since the pandemic began, staffers at Mid Central Community Action’s Countering Domestic Violence program have noticed more reports coming in Bloomington-Normal hospitals.

“We might have five incidents, but it felt like 10, because of the severity of it,” said Senna Adjabeng, director of Countering Domestic Violence. “And that’s when you get really nervous because people can die or be very severely hurt. And if we have an increase in reporting from the hospitals, and we’re in a pandemic, that means they didn’t have a choice but to go to the hospital because of the severity of the abuse.”

Domestic violence holds an unusual status in the criminal justice system, in that it’s so common that it doesn’t attract much public or media attention when it happens.

For the Bloomington Police Department, domestic reports are the most frequent call for service that officers respond to. BPD responded to about 679 domestic-related calls for service between April and July 2020, up 28% from the same period a year ago.

“It’s up substantially,” said Jeff Engle, one of two BPD detectives assigned to domestic violence cases. “And it doesn’t appear like it’s gonna slow down anytime soon. I’m going to assume it’s just because of COVID and everybody’s around each other a lot more than they’d normally be.”

Stressors pile up

While it’s hard to draw a straight line between the pandemic and any individual act of domestic violence, advocates and those in law enforcement see some correlation.

COVID has amplified many of life’s stressors, such as job or income loss and the inability to pay rent or utilities. It’s layered on new ones, like being stuck at home together more often or without child care because the schools are closed. More people are self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. Together, that’s a recipe for an increase in domestic violence.

Some offenders have deliberately weaponized the pandemic, said Adjabeng.

“The dynamic of an offender is to find vulnerability, and if you don’t feel like you have anywhere to go, or you don’t have a job because you’re laid off, they will capitalize on that: ‘Nobody’s going to help you. There’s nothing out there, so you need to stay here,’” she said.

Like the rest of us, offenders are feeling a loss of control over their own lives right now, Koll said.

“That leads offenders to be more likely to try to regain that feeling of power and control by dominating their partner, intimate partners, and their children and abusing them,” Koll said. “And victims are more isolated than ever. If they’re working from home, they don’t have their safety net of their co-workers or HR people who can help them get hooked up with resources, or their church.”

Mary Koll speaks
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
"My caseload is really stacked with very serious cases right now," says McLean County prosecutor Mary Koll, who handles felony domestic violence cases.

Another troubling COVID-related trend is there are more repeat offenders while they’re out on bond, Koll said. Offenders with limited housing options are more likely to return to their victim’s residence, which would typically be a violation of the terms of their bond, she said.

“We are seeing people violate those ‘no contact’ orders over and over. It’s not uncommon to have someone who has a pending domestic battery case and then two or three pending violations of bail bond cases,” Koll said.

Adjabeng, with Countering Domestic Violence, praised judges and courthouse staff for staying accessible to grant orders of protection throughout the pandemic. One change that’s made it slightly easier to obtain that emergency orders of protection is that victims can now file the paperwork electronically and then appear in front of a judge by phone, said Will Scanlon, trial court administrator for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit that includes McLean County.

The courts usually see about 650 orders of protection annually, and they’re on pace for an increase of 10% to 20% this year, Scanlon said.

Those who commit domestic violence often end up in court-ordered treatment, in programs such as Chestnut Health Systems’ Invitation To Responsibility (ITR). Treatment comes later in the process and is only now starting to see the uptick in clients, said Carrie Anderson, Chestnut’s associate director of outpatient services.

Treatment includes a lot of talk about responsibility.

“I don’t think we’ve yet had somebody say, ‘It’s the pandemic’s fault that I did this,’” Anderson said. “But it is fairly common for folks, especially at the beginning of the process, to blame other people or other situations for why they’re in the situation they’re in. And that’s definitely something we address in treatment—what can they control? And it’s their own behaviors that they can control. And why it’s in their best interest to have more healthy relationships.”

Offenders tend to blame their substance abuse problem, said Engle, the BPD detective.

“It is definitely a problem, a disease, that needs to be taken care of. But in my mind, there’s nothing you can say or do that’s gonna make it right. It’s your actions, and you knew what you were doing. You just need to learn,” he said.

Everyone interviewed for this story stressed that help is available if you are experiencing domestic violence. The Countering Domestic Violence 24/7 hotline is (309) 827-7070.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.