Domestic violence exacerbated by pandemic, leaving marginalized communities especially vulnerable

You are currently viewing Domestic violence exacerbated by pandemic, leaving marginalized communities especially vulnerableDarrell Hoemann
Satellite Jail exterior on Wednesday, December 15, 2021. photo by Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

Domestic violence in the city of Champaign rose by 13% last year, surging from 871 incidents in 2019 to 982 incidents in 2020, a review of the last full-year data available from the Champaign Police Department shows. 

Domestic violence incidents in Champaign represented 4% of total crimes in 2016 but increased to 8% in 2020 despite a decrease in the overall number of crimes. Furthermore, it was the most-reported crime except for incidents related to traffic violations. 

Domestic violence made up 8% of all total crimes in 2020 compared to 4% in 2016.

The data show that domestic violence overwhelmingly affects the Black community in Champaign and Urbana. In 2020, Black male and female victims accounted for 63% of total domestic violence cases, according to Champaign City Police data. In Urbana, Black male and female victims were found in approximately 70% of the total incidents from 2020. 

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, the domestic violence rate in 2020 was the lowest in the U.S. in five years, but the rate has continued to increase in Champaign. A full year’s data is not yet available for 2021, but the total number of domestic violence-related incidents in the city of Champaign from the first six months, which is 518, suggests the trend is likely to continue and the number may be higher by the end of this year. 

The Champaign County Court Appointed Special Services (CASA), which provides legal services to foster children and ensures proper care during home reassignment, has serviced a record number of children in 2020 and 2021 due to domestic violence cases.

“Domestic violence in the households made 2020 our highest number of children we serviced ever due to the pandemic,” CASA Executive Director Rush Record said earlier this year, before the number reached 595 this December. The number was 201 less just two years ago.

City of Urbana’s total number of domestic violence remained steady in the past two years — 1,233 incidents in 2019 and 1,227 incidents in 2020. However, given that Urbana’s population size is less than half of Champaign’s, the city showed a much higher prevalence of domestic violence incidents per capita. 

David Smysor, criminal investigation division commander in the Urbana City Police Department, said the difference between Champaign’s and Urbana’s number of domestic violence incidents can be attributed to the domestic dispute cases. He said it’s standard practice to complete a police report concerning that incident regardless of whether or not an arrest was made. 

“We generate a higher number of ‘domestic dispute’ reports, but these are not suggestive of acts of physical violence or arrests,” Smysor said. 

Champaign Police Department has not yet returned repeated requests for comment on its domestic violence procedures.

Task force on issue disbanded quickly

In 2013, the Central Illinois Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Task Force was formed by local experts in Champaign, Douglas, Ford and Piatt counties to address the ensuing problem of domestic violence. The Task Force was declared to be on hiatus in 2014 after only two meetings due to management changes. A spokesperson said at the time the task force is “on hiatus but not gone.”

Seven years later, the Task Force hasn’t resumed, according to Osajuli Cravens, the director of engagement and development at Courage Connection — the primary resource for domestic violence victims and families in Champaign County.

Cravens said as a member of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Courage Connection has raised awareness and sought policy changes through hosting events with the city’s local service providers and first responders to further awareness of the problem, but she said there currently isn’t a plan to reimplement the task force. 

Dr. Jennifer Hardesty, a professor in the department of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois, says domestic violence knows no boundaries in terms of race, ethnicity or age. 

“But there’s evidence that African American families can be disproportionately impacted by intimate partner violence,” Hardesty said. 

The number of incidents concerning Black victims is disproportionately large since the percentage estimates of the Black population in Champaign and Urbana are only 13.8% and 16.5% respectively. 

Hardesty said it may be difficult for African American women to seek help, especially when they are concerned about “drawing negative attention or possible risks to African American men.” 

She added that myths about African American women being tougher than women of other races, and that they can withstand difficult relationships in ways others can’t can compound the issue of reporting. 

A much higher percentage of white victims use hotlines, counseling and social service agencies. According to Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, from 2009 to 2017, the racial and ethnic composition of people seeking help for domestic violence in Illinois has had little discernible difference for African Americans. The number of white victims seeking domestic violence help has increased from 57% to 63%, but African American victims only increased from 26% to 28%. 

Changes in Race of Domestic Violence Clients, 2009-2017

Source: ICJIA Infonet, 134 Domestic violence agencies including satellite offices 

According to Champaign City Police data from 2019, there were 162 Black adult or juvenile arrests, nearly double the 83 arrests for white people. The gap grew in 2020 with 170 Black people arrested and 60 white people arrested. Data from the Urbana City Police showed the same trend where more Black perpetrators were charged despite the slightly reduced number of incidents in 2020. 

Immigrant community especially susceptible

While the African American population is overrepresented, some are severely underrepresented, said Sarah Mellor, social services director at The Immigration Project, a nonprofit that provides immigration legal assistance in Central and Southern Illinois. 

The immigrant community, majority Latinx, followed by the South Asian population, is especially susceptible to domestic violence because of how much control the abuser has over the victim, Mellor said. The immigrant population accounts for 12% of Champaign County’s total population. 

Zoë Foote, director of immigration legal services and assistance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign YMCA New American Welcome Center, said she represents clients who are applying for a U visa — a nonimmigrant visa for victims of severe crimes, including domestic violence. She explained not only is the U visa processing backlogged by the 10,000 issuances per year cap, but the process of application often scars the victims again when they have to explain their abuse at length.  

Mellor said the situations are compounded by the dependence on their abuser because immigrants frequently don’t have driver’s licenses, financial resources or access to government benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid. She stressed the need for outreach programs and translation services that include indigenous languages as well. 

Pandemic thought to worsen violence

The pandemic created local obstacles for the victims from marginalized communities who were already dealing with abuse at home, although the numbers do not show that nationally. 

Safety measures during COVID-19 aimed to protect people against infection unintentionally caused risks to domestic violence victims who couldn’t escape from home, according to Bryce Decker, lead court advocate at Courage Connection. He said even the County’s courthouse was shut down during the lockdown except for hearing emergency orders and protections. 

“I think that’s why I saw an increase in people calling law enforcement to call and seek protection when in the past, they would have done something else,” said Decker. “So it really impacted the way people chose to be safe.” 

According to The New England Journal of Medicine, domestic violence hotlines prepared for an increase in demand for services as states enforced stay-at-home orders, but many organizations experienced the opposite, where the number of calls dropped by more than 50% in some regions. 

The Journal states the pandemic has exacerbated financial entanglement by causing increased job loss and unemployment, reduced access to alternative housing and limited access to safe havens. Some cities, including Austin, Texas, are purchasing and renovating hotels that could be used as a family violence shelter to accommodate the growing need. 

Dr. David Hirschel, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, says the recent increase during the pandemic is not surprising when “victims were prisoners of their abusers.” He said it usually takes a while for a victim to leave their abuser. 

Michael Schlosser, director of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute, recalled getting calls about domestic violence incidents when he was a police officer at the Rantoul Police Department for 20 years and told how emotional and traumatic they can be. 

“We don’t get called when things are going great,” he said. 

Earlier this year, a police officer was shot and killed and another wounded while responding to a domestic violence incident in Champaign. The suspect was also killed. Schlosser said such incidents can become life-threatening for the victims and police officers very quickly as tensions run high. 

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline survey from 2015, one-in-four women responded that they would not call the police in the future and that more than half worried calling the police would make things worse. The respondents’ worst fear was that the police wouldn’t believe them or take action. 

Domestic violence calls can become dangerous for victims and police officers very quickly but Schlosser says he tries to teach the new recruits to remember that even good people have problems in their lives. He added that police officers will try to demonstrate empathy and deescalate the situation when dispatched and make an arrest if they find probable cause. 

No simple solution

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to domestic violence, according to Hardesty. She said the best solution would involve early childhood education and addressing violence in society in general. 

Jaya Kolisetty, executive director of Rape Advocacy, Counseling and Education Services (RACES) and the elected official for the Urbana City Council, agrees that violence — whether gun violence or domestic violence — in communities is interconnected. She said violence at home and a lack of institutional support can contribute to someone potentially being involved in an abusive relationship in the future and more likely to engage in using weapons to cause other forms of violence towards others. 

“When you are talking about addressing issues such as domestic violence and gun violence, it’s important to recognize they all have the same underlying root causes,” said Kolisetty. “It’s important as we are exploring the impact of the pandemic to think about how these various forms of harm are often rooted in inequality and lack of access to resources.” 

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