- As we scrambled to learn the ins and outs of virtual platforms, we failed to recognize and address the negative impact this change had on domestic violence victims.
In the past 18 months, the landscape of the justice system has experienced a significant change. As lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals scrambled to learn the ins and outs of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other virtual platforms, they failed to recognize and address the negative impact this change had on some of our most vulnerable populations: domestic violence victims. Amidst all the chaos of finding a new normal, we must consider the new challenges that our clients face.
It is widely reported that many communities across the United States experienced a spike in domestic violence during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, in Atlanta, Georgia, the Atlanta Police Department reported a 36 percent increase in domestic violence calls during the early days of COVID-19. While data is still forthcoming in other areas, it is believed that shelter-in-place orders were one of the causes of the spike. Because of COVID-19, many shelters in Georgia have had to institute safety measures that have essentially cut their capacity in half, leading to victims being turned away from shelters at capacity. This lack of shelter space exacerbated the long-standing problem of victims being forced to share a home with their abuser.
As the COVID-19 fatalities started to grow, many courts went virtual. Many courts began requesting that victims of domestic violence appear via video to request an ex parte protective order or a 12-month protective order. Many in the legal profession did not realize that this request, while aimed at protecting the health and safety of people participating in the court process, created another hurdle in accessing the courts for many victims. In many rural communities in the United States, like Middle Georgia, access to broadband internet in many of these areas is spotty, at best. Domestic violence victims were often required to leave home on their court dates, not to go to the courthouse, but to try to find an area with free Wi-Fi to attend court. Some victims could not find free Wi-Fi or a safe place to have the hearing. Other victims could not navigate the Zoom technology or did not have a smartphone required to attend a hearing virtually. This led to a dismissal of their cases because they did not have access to reliable technology or could not navigate what they had.
In response to this problem and many other concerns of rural Georgians’ lack of access to the internet, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp announced in April 2021 plans to expand broadband access in Middle Georgia. The plans would create a 3,000-mile fiber network impacting more than 12,000 homes.
As attorneys and members of these communities, we must strive to recognize and meet the needs of our clients, especially those of underserved populations. Financial support for broadband internet expansion, rallying for resources for victims, and supporting nonprofit organizations is a great place to start. In Middle Georgia, the Crisis Line and Safe House is a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide community crisis intervention, safe shelter, comprehensive support, and recovery services for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. The organization is creating a Family Justice Center in Macon, Georgia, where survivors can access nonprofit organizations’ and criminal justice agencies’ services all in one place. Ultimately, it allows rural victims to access resources that they would not have obtained before.
While Crisis Line and Safe House and organizations like it provide a valuable service to communities, we can all give back by doing pro bono work with victims of domestic violence. Whether assisting with protective or child custody orders or guiding through a divorce, every small need met will positively impact survivors and communities.