During COVID, discussions in the legal field have focused on what obstacles are present when a domestic violence victim attempts to seek redress in court. COVID itself has created scenarios that shelter victims at home with their abusers. In addition, the refuge of a hospital has become almost unavailable for a victim to get assistance because COVID treatment is the priority and avoiding infection is paramount. However, we must recognize that the journey to court can begin the moment a victim seeks out options or resources to help them manage their situation or escape the abuse they experience on a daily basis. Analyzing a few factors that could derail a victim’s just resolution in court or delay a victim’s reestablishing their life and family is also important. The advent of COVID has not changed the four factors listed below but has only heightened their effects and increased the obstacles victims may experience when seeking assistance:
In The Neighborhood
1. Lack of Care and Assistance Options in Under Served Communities
With the advent of COVID and the ravages of government shutdown, one major component that keeps victims from seeking justice can be defined as “care and assistance” options in close proximity to their home. In several cities across the country, the government sponsored options are located in the “downtown” or “business district” of the city, which may not be easily accessible to victims. In New York City, government sponsored options retreated from some low-income areas and positioned themselves in “downtown” locales. This may have been due to budget constraints or may have been a realignment of the agency’s mission. However, this may not align with an individual who is seeking guidance and assistance close to home as to not rouse suspicion from neighbors or the person causing the harm. There are many not for profit organizations that provide services and programming in under-served neighborhoods. In their efforts to level set these neighborhoods with others throughout the metropolis, they take an intense interest in the client body that they serve attempting to meet the basic needs of food insecurity, unemployment, under-education or violence interruption. In its reallocation of funding, post COVID, a city government could look to the trusted community based organizations as the first line of defense against domestic violence, investing in training staff to spot signs of domestic violence, offer support and possibly assist the victim in developing an exit strategy. These organizations can be long standing support system for victims turned survivors, as they recreate their life after exiting the abusive home.
2. Lack of Cultural Competence
Many heads who operate organizations that respond to the needs of victims are not necessarily recognizable as survivors to someone from an under served community. At times, behemoth domestic violence organizations can fail at cultural competency and their inability to “relate” may come at a cost for the victim. Some costs are the failure of the victim to utilize the organization’s services; the inability for a caseworker to create an established, trustworthy framework between the victim and the service referral; and the failure to communicate in a manner that allows the victim to absorb the most information and to make the best choices at the time the seek assistance. This situation can be a doubled edge sword for an organization who employs multi-credentialed staff that do not have extensive experience in the community in which the victim resides. In addition, abuse can take on cultural and economic forms. Victims from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or immigrants may be at higher risk due to their inability to fully access law enforcement or the court system. Representation and inclusion matters. Having leaders at the forefront of organizations who are invested in cultural competence can become a beacon for those seeking assistance at a time when victims think there is no one to turn to for assistance.
In The Court System
3. Lack of Fully Combined Court Processes
If and when a victim appears in court, the judge should have the jurisdiction to make a decision on every aspect of the case; particularly when children are involved. Witnessing the successes and accomplishments of the Integrated Domestic Violence (IDV) model in New York City, its purview is lacking in one aspect. The jurisdiction under which IDV operates should include the purview of child support, whether or not a matrimonial matter is attached. When I represented several female clients during their criminal/family law cases, it unnerved me to send them to another courthouse to be heard on the issue of child support. Managing custody and visitation in one courtroom, only to send a parent to another for the determination of support is woefully inefficient and can be exhausting for the client that is managing other court matters and a household. This creates an additional opportunity for the abuser to tarnish the victim’s abilities and standing as a parent and to further inflict trauma upon the victim. Putting all family matters under the “One Family, One Judge” umbrella removes the additional responsibility of the victim having to retell and relive their trauma and provides the one venue to seek full redress against the abuser.
4. Re-housing Expediency
Although law enforcement may have an “in road” to rehousing victims and their families, the procedures can be long and arduous. Victims and their families should not be left to wallow in domestic violence shelters for extended periods of time. Lacking an expedient, streamlined process that includes establishing a new home and schooling (if necessary) can be an impediment to a victim walking away from an abusive home life. This becomes even more apparent when law enforcement relies on city housing agencies to provide some type of housing but have failed to establish a transfer or re-housing system with a clear commitment of the agency leaders. An intentional effort to prepare and support victims when they are housed in a new neighborhood is needed. Part of the trauma that lends itself to being unsettled is the victim and their family being forced to re-acclimate, which is a catalyst for physical, emotional, or psychological stressors. These stressors may lead to the decision to return to the abuser if the victim believes that re-acclimation is too difficult. Housing authorities and law enforcement can intervene to alleviate some of this burden by systematizing how and where victims are housed in addition to providing information on the demographics of the neighborhood, available schools for children, employment resources and trusted community based organizations who can provide services and support.