By Angelika Wilkerson
It’s safe to say that during Domestic Violence Awareness month last October, nobody envisioned the momentous shift in the legal and advocacy landscapes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
For victims and for those serving them, “adaptation” is the name of the game this year.
Legal and crisis agencies have foregone their usual fundraising activities opting instead for virtual events, courts have largely replaced in-person protective order hearings with telephonic or WebEx ones, and the Domestic Violence Emergency (DOVE) Project held their annual attorney training via live webcast for the first time, all with the goal of social distancing.
These changes serve only to increase the importance of both reflecting on the pervasiveness of domestic violence in our society and raising awareness of the resources available to survivors.
Analyzing this year’s domestic violence statistics requires a different lens. In fact, a quick look at statistics provided by the courts could lead an untrained eye to believe the profusion of domestic violence across the state is at an all-time low.
According to the New Hampshire Circuit Court statistics, the number of domestic violence and stalking petitions filed in 2020 are down over 18% through July. A closer examination of the numbers, however, shows that the decrease was dramatically skewed in correlation to the COVID-19 spread and related Emergency Orders issued by the Governor. In April, 2020, the first full month in which a State of Emergency was issued in New Hampshire, the number of protective order petitions filed was down 40% compared to 2019. May followed closely behind with a decrease of over 37%.
While the number of petitions filed is one measure of the prevalence of domestic violence occurring in the state, those in the field recognize that this year’s decrease is related more to the structural and environmental changes accompanying the pandemic. One striking example supporting this premise is the data showing a rise in calls to the statewide Domestic Violence Hotline in 2020 compared to calls in 2019. While there was a severe decrease in petitions filed with the courts this April, calls to the Hotline were up 25% from April 2019.
Another indicator that the prevalence of domestic violence has not waned, and may in fact have increased since stay at home orders hit New Hampshire, is the number of website views recorded by The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. According to NHCADSV, website views in April increased by over 270% compared to March.
In addition to the quantifiable prevalence of domestic violence being tracked this year, the severity of the violence is something crisis advocates and legal service agencies are also keeping an eye on. Anecdotally, there’s consensus that severe violence is on the rise. The DOVE Project has seen frequent reports of strangulation, serious physical injury, and intimate partner stalking in the petitions of victims we serve. News headlines have reported crimes ranging from domestic violence related arson to felony assault, to murder and murder-suicide.
Despite all the changes we’ve seen this year, the fact remains that victims of domestic violence in New Hampshire need help. The DOVE Project, which has seen more applications and has made more volunteer attorney referrals for civil legal representation in September 2020 than in September 2019, is preparing to meet the continuing high demand. One way we plan to do that is through our ongoing commitment to recruiting and training attorneys to represent victims of domestic violence and stalking at final protective order hearings. On September 24th, we did just that, with our live webcast program, Survivors Thrive with Legal Advocacy.*
The DOVE Project has held annual attorney trainings for the past 21 years and while this year’s training was different in terms of format, the substantive content and the faculty expertise met the standard of excellence DOVE prides itself on. Twenty-seven professionals committed to serving domestic violence and stalking survivors attended the training and represented a variety of service areas. New content was added to the materials this year with tips for hearings via telephone and WebEx, which have become routine for protective order hearings, despite those being an exception to the Emergency Orders Suspending in-person hearings. This year’s program yielded many new volunteers for the DOVE Project and reinforced what we’ve always known to be true: that when the going gets tough, DOVE volunteers step up to meet the civil legal needs of the extremely vulnerable clients we serve.
With Pro Bono week right around the corner, I would be remiss if I didn’t end this article encouraging you to volunteer with the DOVE Project. I’ll simply let the statements of two volunteers, who are also profiled later in this Issue, speak for themselves:
For young attorneys or retired attorneys: go to the training and take these cases on. You will feel good about your work, and attorneys are desperately needed.
-Attorney Eric MacLeish
I think more firms should encourage pro bono service among their associates as it’s truly a win-win; the firm gets a more seasoned attorney, and a low-income individual gets much needed legal advocacy.
– Attorney Leif Becker
Funding for this project is provided by Grant ID No. 2020VAW20 awarded by the Violence Against Women Grants Office, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Additional support is provided by Grant ID No. 128038 awarded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Points of view in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.
Angelika Wilkerson is the Assistant Coordinator for DOVE and Domestic Violence Projects of the Pro Bono Referral Program at the New Hampshire Bar Association.