The coronavirus pandemic has had a slew of negative effects on Frederick County. But one of the most dangerous has largely gone unseen: the increased severity in cases of domestic violence.
Calls to law enforcement and domestic violence nonprofit Heartly House are mostly desperate requests for immediate help, according to advocates.
“I think we were anticipating we were going to see many more cases of domestic violence, but really the numbers have not gone up. But the level of severity has gone up dramatically,” said Suzy Boisclair, victim services unit supervisor for the Frederick Police Department. “We are seeing many, many more strangulations, many more cases involving punches and blows to the head, just overall the severity of cases has skyrocketed.”
Inga James, executive director of the Heartly House, largely echoed the sentiment, noting that calls to her organization actually decreased at the start of the pandemic. But now, the number of calls to the domestic violence shelter is back on par with last year’s — and the callers' tones are different.
Usually, the nonprofit receives a large number of calls from people who are simply looking for information and weighing their options, James said. "Those people are not calling," she added.
"It's the people who know exactly what they want, and need those services, because while our calls have stayed about even with 2019 over time, the need for our services has increased by 20 to 25 percent," James said.
James suggested the initial decrease was due to victims being stuck with their abusers or not knowing if Heartly House was still open.
The number of strangulations has doubled over the last year, Boisclair said.
The Frederick County Sheriff’s Office saw a 16.3 percent increase in domestic violence calls during the pandemic compared to the same period in 2019, according to data from Theresa Hiegel, crisis support lead and victim services supervisor with FCSO.
Both James and Boisclair credit the increased severity of cases to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since people are generally staying at home more often, they can become trapped with their abuser. Tensions can rise easily when a victim is completely isolated, and this comes on top of the general stress of the pandemic.
Travel restrictions and financial uncertainty may also limit a victim’s ability to leave an abusive situation, Hiegel said.
“More often, I’m seeing financial issues become a reason for not leaving the abuser because the victim has lost their source of income, and due to that they don’t have the option to go elsewhere,” Boisclair said.
Still, emergency shelter — like the services Heartly House offers — is available.
The pandemic may also be leading to an underreporting of cases, Boisclair said. If a victim cannot get away from their abuser to see a trusted loved one, go to work — or if they have limited access to the internet and phone — safety can be hard to find.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers went up after the pandemic was over,” Boisclair said.
What increased severity looks like
Strangulation, or choking, is one of the factors Heartly House uses on its lethality assessments, which are given to domestic violence victims when they seek services, require medical treatment or file a police report. Of the 816 assessments Heartly House and its partners conducted in fiscal year 2020, 400 included strangulation.
Between March 10 and Nov. 10, the FPD recorded 31 cases where a victim reported strangulation and 21 where the victim reported choking, according to data from Boisclair. By comparison, victims reported 13 cases of strangulation and 34 cases of choking during that same time period in 2019.
Strangulation is one of the key identifiers that a victim is in a life-threatening situation, James said.
"If you're gonna be able to actually put your hands around something that could cause death in your partner, you're already thinking about it," James said.
Additionally, Heartly House has witnessed an increase in abusers’ use of weapons, said Jenn Tousey, manager of community outreach and prevention.
“Abusers who had never used a weapon in their threats before now are picking them up,” Tousey said. “Their stress has just elevated their behavior.”
The sheriff's office has also seen an increase in the severity of domestic violence cases in recent months, along with an increase in calls.
Between March and October 2020, FCSO received 463 domestic violence calls for service, compared to 398 in the same period during 2019 and 355 in that period in 2018, according to sheriff's office data.
Calls spiked in June and July. June 2020 saw 68 calls compared to 49 in June 2019. And July 2020 saw 64 calls compared to 44 in July 2019.
More victims of intimate partner violence are also reaching out to the sheriff's office victim services unit. The unit came into contact with 469 people from March to October 2020, 338 in that same period in 2019 and 349 in that period in 2018, according to Hiegel.
While the number of homicides in the sheriff's office's jurisdiction classified as intimate partner violence have increased — four this year compared to zero between 2016 and 2019 — Hiegel could not definitively say the pandemic has been a factor in these cases.
“We have seen a significant increase this year, but I cannot say what the correlation is, as half of these cases occurred prior to [the] pandemic [and] pandemic orders,” she wrote.
Like FPD, the sheriff’s office did not have domestic violence calls broken down by severity.
“However, it does, from my perspective, appear there [have] been more severe cases to include more intimate partner violence strangulation cases,” Hiegel wrote. “These cases are always considered severe in nature.”
While the FCSO has logged an increase in domestic violence calls, the Frederick Police Department has not. Frederick police logged 306 domestic violence calls between March and October 2020, compared to 320 in the same period last year and 328 in that period in 2018, according to Lt. Andrew Alcorn. There was one homicide and one attempted homicide related to domestic violence in 2020, he said, zero in 2019 and one domestic violence-related homicide in 2018.
Need for resources
Heartly House’s shelter can usually house up to seven families at a time. But because of COVID-19, its capacity has gone down to four families. Those spots have been filled up, and the nonprofit has had to send other people to hotels.
It’s not unusual for Heartly House to partner with hotels, James said, but it is unusual to be using so many — up to five — at once. Usually, Heartly House only has to outsource to a hotel once or twice a year.
"And it's impossible to serve people on site and in hotels at the same time, especially since they're not all staying at the same hotel," James said.
Heartly House’s services remain in great demand, including its legal and counseling services. While the nonprofit did receive additional grant money during COVID, none of it could be used to hire more staff, which James said is the organization’s most pressing need.
James said there is lack of mental health resources in Frederick County, which can overwhelm the Heartly House counselors.
“I say that even though there are plenty of therapists, and the Mental Health Association [of Frederick County] is a wonderful organization, there are wait lists all over town, and you won't get in if you don't have insurance," said James. "You won’t get in if you don't have a Social Security number, which is critical to our immigrant community.”
Meanwhile, FPD officers are still responding to domestic violence cases as they were before the pandemic, Alcorn said, while taking health precautions. Boisclair finds herself speaking with victims over the phone more than she did in the past, but she still has met with many in-person, including to go to court.
How to help
Despite the obstacles the pandemic presents, Boisclair wants Frederick residents to know the victim services unit is available. Through her or the unit’s victim advocate, residents can get help acquiring a protective order or no-trespass order, develop a safety plan and be connected to an emergency shelter, among other services.
Boisclair said she works closely with Heartly House to ensure victims know all of their options. This helps empower them to make the choices that work best for them. The unit also works closely with Frederick Health Hospital. Boisclair invites those in need to call her at 301-600-1356. She wants victims to know there are times when an officer, even one who has the best intentions, may not be able to charge an offender if there isn't sufficient evidence on scene, for example. However, there is another avenue. Victims can file for criminal charges on their own by going to the District Court Commissioner’s office at 7300 Marcies Choice Lane, Frederick. It is open 24/7 and located in the front section of the building for the Frederick County Adult Detention Center.
Additionally, the FCSO Victim Services Unit operates Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and can be reached at 301-600-1290 for information, resources and support.
Heartly House is also available via its website — heartlyhouse.org — for people who do not feel comfortable calling.
For people concerned for their friends, Tousey and James suggest speaking to them directly if they feel comfortable enough to do so.
“That's always the best because some of our victims don't realize that relationships should be any other way,” James said. “That's never what they've experienced in their lives, so you can give them education and talk to them about what's appropriate, what's not appropriate and what they can do about it.”
Tousey said one tip she has for people concerned about their friends is to set up a code word their friend can text them. This is especially helpful for people whose partners have access to their phone.
In Tousey’s system, one code word meant that Tousey would come over. Another meant that she should call 911. Heartly House operates a free, 24/7 hotline at 301-662-8800.
While people like those at Heartly House are concerned about the increased severity of domestic violence cases, a recent change in criminal law produced a major win for victims.
A new law went into effect Oct. 1 making strangulation a first-degree assault — a felony offense in Maryland. Previously, there was a bit of gray area surrounding strangulation. It could fall under first- or second-degree assault, the latter being a misdemeanor with a lesser sentence. Prosecutors like assistant state’s attorney Brett Engler had to prove significant bodily injury to get strangulation charged as a felony, which is difficult when it does not always leave obvious signs of injury.
“When you are strangling someone, you are putting their life in danger,” Engler said. “ ... Causing serious bodily injury was kind of a nebulous term that was hard for juries to understand.”
Advocates for domestic violence victims, including Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick) and the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office, pushed a bill forward to change this.
Engler hopes the new law will raise awareness and bring more resources to domestic violence.
In Engler’s eyes, the change sends a message to victims and perpetrators. Strangulation is a serious offense, and not one the law will let go unchecked.
“This is dangerous, lethal behavior and it shouldn’t be tolerated,” she said.