Domestic violence is worsening during the pandemic in horrifying ways, and the victims who are trapped in a home with an abuser are desperate for help.
While the number of calls has not risen dramatically, the severity of the injuries inflicted has become noticeably worse, according to victim advocates.
Suzy Boisclair, victim services unit supervisor for the Frederick Police Department, told News-Post reporters Erika Riley and Mary Grace Keller:
“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.
“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.”
In Frederick County as a whole, domestic violence calls did increase, rising by 16.3 percent compared to the same period in 2019, according to the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office. But that was not the case universally. Instead, the individual acts of violence worsened.
Inga James, executive director of the Heartly House, the shelter for victims, told our reporters that the number of calls is on par with last year, but the tenor of the calls is starkly different. The calls are not from people seeking information; they are from people desperate for immediate help.
One terrible statistic illustrates the scope of the problem this year. Boisclair told our reporters that the number of strangulations has doubled over the last year.
However, by fortuitous stroke of good timing, the Maryland General Assembly earlier this year strengthened the state law against strangulation, making it a felony for the first time.
Victim advocates had been pushing for several years for legislators to recognize the absurdity of treating a serious assault as a misdemeanor. With the new law, strangulation is now classified as a first-degree assault and can be punished by up to 25 years in prison.
Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick) was the lead sponsor of the House bill and deserves great credit for working hard to get the bill passed with bipartisan support. He also had strong backing from the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Before the law was changed, strangulation could fall under second-degree assault, a misdemeanor. Assistant State’s Attorney Brett Engler, who handles domestic violence cases, said for strangulation to be considered a felony assault, prosecutors had to prove significant bodily injury. An attack, though very dangerous, does not always leave visible injuries, she said.
Under the old law, the maximum prison sentence for misdemeanor assault was 10 years, but Engler said first-time offenders often received probation. Now that strangulation is a felony, even a first-time offender faces a minimum of one year in prison, she said.
Punishing strangulation appropriately is important because it is one of the key identifiers that a victim is in a life-threatening situation, James said.
In 2018, an expert in domestic violence told a News-Post reporter: “If a woman is strangled even one time, her likelihood of dying as a victim of homicide related to domestic violence increases by 700 percent.”
Heartly House gives every domestic violence victim a lethality assessment when they seek services, require medical treatment or file a police report. Of the 816 assessments conducted in fiscal year 2020, 400 included strangulation.
Under the extreme stresses – both financial and emotional – of living during a pandemic, abusers and victims often are forced into close proximity and the results have been terrible.
The new law, coupled with strong advocates like Heartly House and enlightened law enforcement in the city and county, give victims a better chance of getting out of their situation alive.