Cy-Fair Edition - May 2020

PUBLIC SAFETY Domestic violence calls climb inHarris County

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BY HANNAH ZEDAKER

shelters in our areas have closed to new clients because they’ve already got a full house and they’re practicing social distancing,” Johnson said. “So it’s even more difficult to get some- body into a shelter.” Findingsanctuary Local officials offered several options for victims of domestic abuse to find refuge if he or she is stuck at home with the abuser, including con- fiding in someone the victim trusts, creating a safe space inside the home and coming up with a signal for when police intervention is needed. “It’s hard to encourage domestic violence survivors to [confide in someone they trust] because ulti- mately, domestic violence is a crime of secrecy,” Colter said. Once those allies are made, Colter added having a code word or some other type of signal that could be used to notify the ally when police inter- vention is needed is also a good plan to have in place. Colter also recommends creating a safe space in the house where there are no weapons or items that could be used as weapons. She also encouraged families to make space when they are able to by taking a walk or a trip to the grocery store to de-escalate a heated situation. “People are still able to go to the grocery store, the pharmacist—places like that might be a place of sanctuary right now for a victim of domestic violence,” Colter said. As with many past crises, Johnson added she anticipates domestic violence calls to continue to climb even after the stay-at-home orders are

January to February, that number shot back up in March, growing 19.84% from February with 1,558 domestic violence-related calls reported countywide. “People are confined [in] their homes, [and] many people are not working or working from home,” HCSO Director of Public Affairs Jason Spencer said. “Those that are not working have no income, so their stress is up, which can cause them to lash out much more quickly. For the batterer, they are home more, which gives themmore access to the victim.” A ‘petri dish’ for domesticviolence Officials added they suspect actual incidences of domestic violence are much higher because more cases are going unreported as connections to the outside world are more limited. “Isolation is literally just exagger- ating any abuse that might have been taking place previously,” said Sheryl Johnson, the director of NAM’s Family Violence Center. The same can be said for incidences of child abuse, said Sarah Hernandez, the communications and outreach coordinator for The Children’s Assess- ment Center—a Harris County-based organization—as many children are now separated from adults they trust such as teachers. To make matters worse, for those who do choose to leave an abusive relationship, Spencer said many Greater Houston-area shelters have also had to cut bed space in half to comply with social distancing guidelines to curb the spread of the coronavirus. “Several of the domestic violence

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Throughout the duration of Harris County’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order, officials said the combination of encouraged isolation, coronavi- rus-related financial stressors and limited shelter space as a result of social distancing have created an ideal environment for escalated domestic violence. “All of those things create a petri dish for domestic violence,” said Mai- sha Colter, the CEO of Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, a Houston-based organization that provides free legal representation and counseling for survivors of domestic abuse. “We’ve actually seen an uptick in calls for service related to victim programs ... specifically around the time when the stay-at-home orders started to come down.” The same trend could be seen for most organizations dedicated to helping survivors of domestic vio- lence, including Northwest Assistance Ministries’ Family Violence Center, the Houston Area Women’s Center, the Children’s Assessment Center and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which has a dedicated Domestic Violence Unit and Crime VictimAssistance Unit. “Stay-at-home measures may help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but home may not be the safest place,” said Chau Nguyen, chief public strategies officer for the Houston Area Women’s Center. “Calls to the hotlines have spiked up to 40% on some days, averaging about 60-80 domestic violence-related calls a day.” According to the sheriff’s office, while calls related to domestic violence saw a 10.28% decrease from

While calls to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office related to domestic violence saw an overall 10.28% decrease between the months of January and February, that number shot back up in March by 19.84%.

Family-related aggravated assault

Family-related assault Family-related disturbance

JANUARY

16

219

1,214

FEBRUARY

12

184

1,104

MARCH

31

255

1,272

SOURCE: HARRIS COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE/ COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER

lifted. “Quite frankly, the longer we’re in this scenario and the longer [the vic- tim] is isolated, the more entrenched some of those behaviors are going to become once we go back to ‘normal life,’” she said.

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CY-FAIR EDITION • MAY 2020

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