One focus of the national conversation around the pandemic has been its resultant domestic violence crisis. With lockdown and shelter-in-place orders, survivors have been forced to isolate with their abusers, in a time when financial and political uncertainties are making matters even worse. The Gate sat down with Deirdre Harrington, a policy advisor specializing in domestic violence and sexual assault for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.
The Gate: What have been the consequences for survivors and their children since March of 2020, on a national level?
Deirdre Harrington: COVID has presented a challenge for survivors, particularly those who still reside with their abusers. Before the pandemic, a survivor may have been able to take refuge outside of the home, be it at work, school, or even going to the grocery store a few times a week. That changed dramatically in March with the implementation of stay-at-home orders. Survivors have been placed under even more scrutiny and control from their abusers because they were at home together all of the time, without excuses to leave the home to potentially seek services, safety plans, report violence to the police, or just have a second to breathe. An additional concern is financial stress in the home, which often results in increased violence. This coupled with the inability of survivors to seek resources outside of the home is alarming.
Gate: How have you observed the pandemic affecting the survivor community in Illinois, and more specifically, Chicago?
Harrington: There’s been a lot of uncertainty with how the pandemic has impacted survivors in concrete ways because we are still in the midst of the pandemic. Survivors, more than ever, need the criminal justice system to be creative in how we serve them and how we connect them to services.
Gate: Given the national attention that the pandemic has brought to the socioeconomic inequities involved with domestic violence, do you see this potentially being an opportunity for stronger advocacy/action/laws?
Harrington: I think the renewed attention to domestic violence throughout the pandemic is a great opportunity for a larger conversation within the criminal justice system on ways we make the system more accessible for all survivors. The ability to use remote options for survivors can help make the system more open for survivors who may have difficulties with transportation, childcare, and more. While survivors will have to manage some of those obstacles later in the process, the ability to screen for criminal charges and file orders of protection remotely is a huge step forward.
Gate: How have the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (CCSAO) and other government agencies dealt with the growing concerns over the safety of survivors? What are the main policy changes we should be aware of?
Harrington: The safety of survivors has been top of mind for the CCSAO throughout the pandemic, both the safety of survivors in their homes and against the pandemic. The CCSAO quickly shifted to a remote screening option during the pandemic, so that survivors can seek misdemeanor criminal charges after filing a police report. Additionally, the CCSAO has worked with the domestic violence advocacy community to promote the remote filing of orders of protection with the assistance of advocates. This is a difficult time for survivors and the criminal justice system has had to learn a lot very quickly about flexibility and working together, even more than before, to ensure the safety and health of survivors.
Gate: Turning now to a discussion of demography, and the diversity of survivorship: Who is most likely to experience cases of domestic violence, and what external factors are important to consider?
Harrington: This is a difficult question to answer, as domestic violence impacts every single community, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status, geography, and more. Data collection related to domestic violence is not that reliable, as it tends to only capture people who report to law enforcement. We know that the majority of survivors do not report to law enforcement. I think when it comes to domestic violence, we need to be culturally competent to encourage survivors to come forward and feel more comfortable throughout the process. There are a lot of great domestic violence organizations in Cook County that focus on specific populations because of the unique needs of different communities.
Gate: Recent studies show that the LGBTQ+ community experiences equal or higher rates of domestic violence compared with the US general population. Through your work in Chicago, can you lend some insight into the circumstances faced by persons who identify as LGBTQ+?
Harrington: There are a lot of different tactics that abusers use with LGBTQ+ survivors, such as threatening to out a survivor to their family, friends, or at work and withholding hormone therapies to trans survivors. These survivors are often even more hesitant than survivors outside of the LGBTQ+ community to report and come forward for a variety of reasons, and they have additional burdens they may have to overcome throughout the criminal justice system. The CCSAO’s Victim Witness Unit has a victim witness specialist that focuses on the issues LGBTQ+ survivors face throughout the criminal justice system to make that process easier and more trauma-informed.
Gate: What is the most important or surprising fact about sexual assault and domestic violence prevalence in America that you would want readers to take away from this conversation?
Harrington: I want to stress that both sexual assault and domestic violence happen across all lines, and there is nothing to be ashamed of for having experienced either. And to survivors, that they are not alone and there is help, support, and resources available.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, you are not alone. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for free, confidential support at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233). Find other resources at http://www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/resources/