Local police, experts agree: JeffCo domestic violence numbers often deceptive amidst COVID

Luciano Marano
lmarano@ptleader.com
Posted 9/24/20

She needed a new oven; the old one had up and died without warning.

It’s the type of banal ordeal to which all adults can relate: No fun, certainly, but hardly a crisis.

However, with …

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Local police, experts agree: JeffCo domestic violence numbers often deceptive amidst COVID

Posted

She needed a new oven; the old one had up and died without warning.

It’s the type of banal ordeal to which all adults can relate: No fun, certainly, but hardly a crisis.

However, with supply lines and delivery services strained and slowed as they are in the time of COVID, the acquisition took longer than usual, almost six weeks.

Meanwhile, she had three hungry kids to worry about.

And money was tight.

And she was living in temporary housing, arranged by Dove House Advocacy Services, working to move on from an abusive relationship.

And her abuser was threatening to use her sudden inability to feed her kids as an excuse to take her to court and challenge her custody rights.

Suddenly, it was a crisis.

It has been widely reported that fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social and economic impacts most heavily affected those who could least afford the hit. Among the myriad of ways in which that unfair phenomenon has manifested in Jefferson County is an unprecedented strain on the resources of Dove House, the only local organization dedicated solely to providing services to victims of intimate violence and sexual assault, including a temporary emergency shelter and transitional housing for women and families.

“Everything takes about five extra steps,” said executive director Beulah Kingsolver. “It’s more expensive; it’s extra time to do everything.”

She said things did finally work out all right for the woman in need of an oven, though obviously that was just one small part of a much larger ordeal. And she is just one person. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Like everything to do with domestic violence, statistics are complicated and often reveal only part of a larger story. For instance, while Dove House and the Port Townsend Police Department agree that reported instances of such crimes are down from 2019 so far, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office reports an uptick in such instances county-wide.

However, they all agree that COVID has complicated everything, even something as already complicated as domestic abuse.

And it’s likely to become more so.

BY THE NUMBERS

According to Kingsolver, the usual metrics show 2020 being a better year than 2019.

From Feb. 1 to July 31, Dove House saw 198 people use their hotline in 2019; this year, 135.

In the same time last year, there were 167 unmet shelter requests (97 in 2020), 67 new intakes (49 in 2020), and 324 new and returning clients (205 in 2020).

“I believe this is due to folks trying to make do and living in [and] staying in violent homes during the pandemic,”  Kingsolver said.

“With no space in shelters and jails being closed and limited resources with the courthouse and both partners in the home, it is much harder and many times higher risk of lethality in times like this. Victims and families have no place to go and abusers have much more control.”

Likewise Troy Surber, Interim Chief of the Port Townsend Police Department, said he’s wary of celebrating his department’s seemingly encouraging numbers.

“In the first seven months of 2019, [we] responded to 44 domestic violence incidents; in the same period in 2020, the PTPD responded to 23 domestic violence incidents,” he said.

“While this is a decent indicator that domestic violence incidents are down over last year in general, there are some other factors that could account for at least part of the drop in incidents,” Surber said.

For example, Surber said if a victim of domesticviolence engages with a support organization, such as Dove House, without contacting police, the incident would not be captured in police records. 

“Because of COVID-19, households are often forced to spend more time together, creating more opportunities for abuse and restricting opportunities to seek resources to end the abuse,” Surber said. “A victim of domestic violence who is essentially trapped with their abuser will have limited time and options, and may seek an organization such as Dove House directly as an alternative to engaging with the law and justice system.”

Or, less pleasant to imagine, they might not have been able (or willing) to seek help at all.

“We are concerned that some may not be confident enough in their policing agencies to report some crimes,” the chief said.

“In Port Townsend, we want to ensure that any victim of crime, whether a resident or visitor, feels a sense of safety and support from the police department.  Along those same lines, making a decision to contact law enforcement should not be influenced by whether the person calling has overdosed on an illegal substance or whether they have legal immigration status; it should only be based on a need for help.” 

“Our mission is to enhance public safety for everyone in the city of Port Townsend, and we really mean everyone,” Surber added.

Jefferson County Sheriff Joe Nole said his department has seen an uptick in domestic violence incidents between Jan. 1 and Aug. 1 in 2020 as opposed to the same time in 2019.

There were, he said, 191 reported domestic violence incidents during that time this year, up from 170 in 2019.

Nole collected data for the same time period for the past five years. The results show clearly a steady rise in incidents of domestic violence since 2016 — with the exception of 2019, which saw an anomalous drop.

The sheriff’s office responded to 156 domestic violence calls between Jan. 1 and Aug. 1 2016; 179 during the same time in 2017; 191 in 2018; 170 in 2019; and 191 in 2020.

Like Surber, Nole noted domestic violence often goes unreported for a variety of reasons, even before the additional factors imposed by COVID-19.

COVID cues changes

Advocates have been finding new ways to offer services in the age of COVID, and fully expect demand for such assistance to increase as students return (or not) to school, and fall brings a flu season many experts predict will be dire.

A sharp increase in evictions is also expected, and the economy has been slow to start recovering from the initial shutdown (with one state, Hawaii, actually having already gone so far as to enact a slightly revised second large-scale quarantine).

All of this is incredibly stressful, Kingsolver said. And stress breeds domestic violence.

“I think us social workers are getting ready for a [expletive] storm, to be blunt,” said Kingsolver. “That’s what we’re preparing for. We’re looking at, ‘How do we do this? What are we going to need to do?’”

Dove House, where Kingsolver has been executive director for more than 10 years, is the only resource of its kind in Jefferson County. Also, the only shelter she knows that takes pets.

“Jefferson County doesn’t have a family shelter, so we’re it,” she said. “There’s a homeless shelter, which is totally booked. And so there is no place for women and children to go, or families.”

In attempting to house clients, the advocacy service’s hotel costs have risen of late in accordance with the lack of available space.

“I think our hotel costs are going to go up extremely high and my guess is we’re going to have to move people out of our county, which is really expensive also,” Kingsolver said.

“We just got to figure out where to house them. We’re using more and more hotels. Normal stay in a hotel before the pandemic was maybe three days while we figured something out; I had someone in a hotel nine days.”

Some clients have been able to move from the shelter or transitional housing into their own residences, no small feat even in pre-COVID days.

“We’ve managed to move two into permanent housing during the pandemic, which, in and of itself, is pretty amazing,” Kingsolver said. “Finding permanent housing in Port Townsend is pretty amazing, but when you find two in the pandemic, we were pretty proud of ourselves.”

The longtime advocate said she believes most residents would be surprised to learn of the prevalence of domestic violence in JeffCo.

“I think we think we live in a really beautiful, safe community — and we do — but I don’t think our average citizen has any idea what goes on in what I always call under the belly of our community,” she said. “It just looks so pretty here, and we have so much wealth, that the other stuff often falls between the cracks.

“There’s a pretty big crack here,” she added. “And the pandemic is opening it up wider.”

Assisting the advocates

For everything there is a season — even abuse.

“Domestic violence kind of has a cycle,” Kingsolver said. “When summer first starts you don’t see a lot, but after it’s been a while, like right before the holidays, it takes a dive. People just try to keep it together through certain things that happen. So when the pandemic hit, it got pretty quiet but the longer this is happening, and now with school not going to happen, we’re seeing an increase in stress and anytime you see an increase in stress in the world you see an increase in violence among intimate partners. “

Between assisting with food, finances, finding work, and shelter, there is no aspect of the work of Dove House not impacted by COVID-19. Even the needs of clients, apparently, are changed in the time of coronavirus.

“I would say the biggest thing we’ve seen that’s really different for us is [that] normally in a domestic violence situation you have a few options for safety plans and one of them is an order of protection,” Kingsolver said. “So if the police aren’t called they come see us, we do some counseling and we can get a civil order of protection, possibly, so the person can be safe.”

“Right now we’re seeing where a lot of people are calling us and asking us to talk to the partner. We’re doing some mediation type of thing, which is not what we have done in the past — but there’s no place for them to go.”

Advocates are also mostly stuck at home, working by phone and laptop.

“It’s a new way of doing services for sure,” Kingsolver said. “I would say every day is a new day. Trying to get people’s needs met is challenging because we do a lot of basic needs around domestic [violence].”

How to help

And on top of everything else, Dove House has had to be choosier in what donations and support they can accept themselves.

These days, for example, used clothes are a no-go due to the potential for contamination.

“We’re only taking new because of the pandemic,” Kingsolver said.

They are greatly in need of new school supplies and backpacks now, as well as toiletries, soap, and feminine products.

Also food, the box outside Dove House being, according to Kingsolver, in high demand.

“We’re having a heck of a time keeping that stocked just because it’s being used to so much,” she said.

For those able and inclined, Kingsolver said financial donations are always greatly appreciated and, if done smartly, can in fact benefit the entire community.

“Gift cards are like gold,” she said. “A really great way to sponsor us and our local community is by buying local gift cards because then we give them to our families. That’s a really great way to support the clients of Dove House, Dove House, and our local community.”

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