Domestic violence experts worried about the impacts of coronavirus. Here’s what happened as Utah locked down.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The playground equipment at Donner Trail Park in Salt Lake County is closed off due to the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

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Living in a world infected with the coronavirus is stressful. That’s before adding in possible job losses or food concerns or figuring out how to care for children who are not in school. It can make a tough situation all the more difficult — especially when there is no end in sight.

And then, what happens if the person you are living with is prone to violent outbursts toward you or your kids?

Advocates and police have braced for a rise in domestic violence. And it has hit some parts of Utah.

On April 3, five days after Salt Lake County officials issued an order requiring people to stay in their homes, a woman in Taylorsville called the police. She heard thumping and banging and her neighbor screaming, “Get away from me!”

When the police arrived, they heard more of the same violent yelling, according to charging documents. “You’re worthless,” the man allegedly shouted. “Do you want to get shot tonight?”

Officers found blood spotted and spattered on the bed, on the floor and the walls. A mirror was broken. They arrested the man and took the woman to get treated for face wounds.

This was one of the 318 domestic violence cases that Salt Lake County prosecutors received in the four weeks starting March 16. It’s a 21% increase in cases compared with the same period a year ago. West Valley City prosecutors similarly say that the police department there has reported a 28% jump in domestic violence calls this March compared with last year. They expected this, as did advocates for domestic violence victims.

“I wish I could say there’s been something surprising,” said YWCA public policy director Erin Jemison. “I think exactly what we predicted has happened.”

At the YWCA, crisis call volume has been up about 33% in recent weeks compared with a normal week. More people are looking for help through the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition’s LINK line and through member programs, Executive Director Jenn Oxborrow said.

Impacts on children

Jake Summers, an Orem city prosecutor, said they haven’t seen an increase in domestic violence cases overall, though there have been more people charged with domestic violence in front of children.

Some Utah cities haven’t seen such changes, but in Salt Lake County, prosecutors are troubled. District Attorney Sim Gill said they’ve seen a decrease in almost every other kind of crime — except domestic violence.

“This crime happens so often in the isolation of the home,” he said. “And if you look at the dynamics of an abuser, it’s really often isolation, alienation and segregation of the victim from family and friends. Shelter at home then actually becomes a more pronounced petri dish of that abuse.”

And yet, the stats involving child abuse are different.

Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services data shows that calls reporting child neglect and abuse have decreased. Last year, from April 1 to April 21, it got 2,433 calls. This year during that time frame, it received 1,586. The same trend was true comparing this March with last year.

DCFS Executive Director Diane Moore said that experts don’t believe children are being abused less. That’s just not what happens during trying times.

“The reason is because these kids are isolated. They lack the visibility that would normally lead to reporting,” Moore said. She noted children don’t see their teachers, grandparents, neighbors or religious leaders anymore, and those are the people who might normally call DCFS to report abuse.

DCFS data shows that between March 1 and April 24, the biggest drop in reporting came from school personnel. Those calls are down nearly 9 percentage points from 20.5% last year. While notification from police has risen about 3 percentage points from last year to 22.5% There was also a jump in reporting from neighbors, family members and custodial parents.

Oxborrow said those low numbers concern her, adding that even when a child witnesses domestic violence, it can hinder their development.

She added, “Something people say often is, ‘I don’t know if it’s abuse.’ It’s not up to you to decide that. It’s up to the child welfare professional.”

Oxborrow said that if you see or hear something, call child welfare at 1-855-323-DCFS.

High-risk cases

Since early March, Utah officials have worked to keep people out of crowded jails as the coronavirus spreads. Cops are giving out citations instead of arresting people, and hundreds who are incarcerated have been released from jails early.

Officials have stressed that little would change in how the system treats people accused of violent crimes, such as sex abuse or domestic violence. Yet, domestic violence experts remain worried about what a shrinking jail population could mean for their clients.

“So often we’re seeing abusers are not caught for the abuse, it’s other more minor things,” said Jemison, with YWCA.

She said clients there are stressed and anxious and have already started calling for help after learning their incarcerated abuser was released earlier than expected.

Gill and West Valley City Attorney Ryan Robinson said they’ve seen a concerning number of cases in which their prosecutors have asked for a warrant to put a suspected abuser in jail — and judges refused to sign off.

“All the effort the system is currently making to free up beds at the jail during the pandemic should prioritize space for our highest risk cases,” Robinson said. “The refusal to issue a warrant for a high-risk domestic violence offense impedes our ability to intervene and protect families from abuse.”

The allegations in many of these cases are serious, like when prosecutors say a 20-year-old man pushed his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach on March 6, then held her down and hit her face after she bumped his PlayStation. A child watched the violence unfold, they say.

City prosecutors filed charges in early April, but a judge denied their request that the man be arrested and put into jail, noting in the court docket that the charges were a month old.

Or there was a case involving a 31-year-old man who is accused of hitting his common-law wife with a wooden spoon, and grabbing her throat until she became dizzy and vomited as two children watched. He was arrested initially, but prosecutors didn’t file charges until early April. Again, a judge denied an arrest warrant.

Third District Presiding Judge Mark Kouris could not comment on specific cases but said generally that it’s challenging for judges to find that there is a public safety risk and that someone should be put in jail when that person has been free for a month as prosecutors contemplated filing charges.

He said that while there have been efforts to reduce the number of people in jail, he doesn’t take the coronavirus into account when deciding if someone who is violent should be let free.

“We are still very diligently following the law when it comes to this and how important and what a huge decision it is to take someone’s liberty and lock them in a cage,” he said. “It’s painstaking for us for that reason. [But] knowing the D.A. made that decision by letting them get out of jail without filing the case leaves us in a tough spot.”

Robinson noted that judges don’t have to consider how quickly charges are filed when contemplating whether someone should be in jail — just whether the defendant is at risk to injure others or would flee. He notes that oftentimes it takes the police more than a few days to complete an investigation.

Oxborrow said that even in cases when judges don’t approve warrants, police using the lethality assessment are stepping up to get high-risk victims in touch with resources and referring them to the LINK line, 1-800-897-LINK (5465). She said it may explain some of the increase in call volume.

But Gill said it’s the “shared responsibility” of everyone in the criminal justice system to make sure that domestic violence victims know their safety won’t be compromised.

“Shelter in place does not mean you have to shelter in abuse,” he said. “Every victim out there, I want them to know there is a corps of volunteers who are there to assist, and they are not alone.”

Community-based resources, given out through udvc.org across the state, are also available to victims, Oxborrow said, and those in crisis will not be turned away.

Editor’s note • Those who are experiencing intimate partner violence, or know someone who is, are urged to call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line, 1-800-897-LINK (5465), or the Utah Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line, 1-888-421-1100. To report child abuse and neglect, call the Division of Child and Family Services hotline at 1-855-323-DCFS. For emergencies, call 911.