One positive from the pandemic is the amount of information sharing and note comparisons happening.

The Legal Services Corporation’s briefings are a prime example. At its latest briefing, LSC focused the overview and anecdotes on domestic violence, a problem already on the rise before COVID-19 led to shelter-in-place orders that exacerbated abusive situations. 

Initially, legal services providers across the country reported seeing a decrease in domestic violence calls. Experts at the briefing speculated that’s because domestic violence victims had even fewer options at the start of the pandemic. 

Julianna Lee, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles

“Domestic violence survivors lose so much by leaving, we were not surprised to see a reduction in calls early in the pandemic,” said Julianna Lee, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles

But that changed quickly as organizations launched outreach campaigns to let victims know how to get help, find housing, and tap into community resources.

Another common thread was that abusers were using the pandemic as a way to further terrorize families, more closely monitor those at home, flaunting precautions, threatening exposure. In one case shared, this is what finally led one mother to obtain a restraining order. If she couldn’t even be safe from COVID-19 in her home, why stay. 

“Safer at home is an oxymoron to some extent because you are not safer at home when domestic violence is present, said U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisconsin. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, echoed those sentiments with a heartfelt retelling of her own domestic violence experience as a child. 

Lawmakers from both parties were on the call assured LSC that Congress is well aware of the problem and is working through funding and continuing to press the Senate to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which has languished since late 2019. Without the act, funding continues to be withheld from direct-service organizations working with abuse victims. 

Sarah White, a senior attorney with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, made the point that even the fact that courts have closed and many services limited or forcing delays has increased stress for those with ongoing divorce and custody cases. In some cases, the delays can be attributed to further or more extreme acts of domestic violence. 

Chief Judge Wanda L. Dallas of Georgia

Even though many domestic violence related services are still available, this shift to remote operations has highlighted a key access issue. Wanda L. Dallas, Clayton County (GA) chief magistrate judge, said that pre-pandemic, victims would come directly to the courthouse for services. Many victims and low-income residents have no or limited access to the technology to connect with court services. To resolve this issue, Clayton Legal Aid used voicemail, its website, and flyers to let victims know that they’d partnered with the local police department, providing laptops with direct access to the agency’s portal. 

In North Carolina, legal aid took the initiative to get those in need connected to services as well. 

TeAndra Miller, who heads the Domestic Violence Prevention Initiative at Legal Aid of North Carolina, described a chaotic situation in the early days of the pandemic. A lack of sanitation and social distancing were common and many judges were reluctant to engage in remote hearings.

That changed when Legal Aid of North Carolina lawyers began aggressively reaching out to judges, advocating for remote hearings. Where judges were particularly recalcitrant, the agency held mock hearings via WebEx to demonstrate the process and technology. 

“When they could see that in action, it seemed they were willing to move in that direction” and hold remote hearings, Miller said. The courts still aren’t fully functioning, but they’re moving in that direction, she said.

“I think the silver lining in the midst of this is what we’ve begun today. From around the country, we’re connecting with each other in real time,” Judge Dallas said. “When you’re in a stressful situation people either run away from the problem or work toward a solution. Victims who’ve already been forced to stay home do not have the option to run away. We’re the ones who’ve got to create solutions for them.”

Watch the briefing here: