By Charlene Muhammad CHARLENEM
Many cities across the U.S. implemented stay-at-home orders to offer protection during the global coronavirus pandemic. But homes have not been safe for Black women suffering domestic violence or subjected to sexual harassment or exploitation.
Not only have they endured abuse, but with courts and services shut down, many fear there isn’t much help available, said advocates.
Detectives in Vallejo, Calif., said 50-year-old Raymond Jackson shot and killed his 53-year-old girlfriend and her 14-year-old daughter before turning the gun on himself in a double-murder-suicide. All three were Black. Mr. Jackson was living with his girlfriend at the time of the incident, police told The Final Call.
Her 12-year-old daughter was able to escape, according to police, who say Mr. Jackson was previously arrested for misdemeanor domestic violence and was legally prohibited from possessing a firearm.
Domestic violence was the number one topic on recent calls with San Francisco’s District Attorney Advisory Board and the Mothers in Charge advocacy group, according to Mattie Scott, a Bay Area-based victims’ rights and anti-gun activist.
“One mother on the call said she’s listening out, because she knows reports have gone up. But right now, it’s so quiet, you can’t really hear anything,” said Ms. Scott.
“Usually, it’s so loud, everybody could hear when something’s happening, but that’s even scarier (now) because you don’t know what’s going on in folks’ homes, if they’re alive or not. So, people are doing phone calls and check-ins. We are highly concerned about that and the fact that they’re not coming in for their normal meetings because of the shutdown,” she added.
Domestic violence-related tragedy has also struck close to home for Ms. Scott. Her family is mourning the death of a young relative. The mother of a three-year-old and her mother were shot by an ex-boyfriend after she’d ended a relationship when he became abusive, according to Ms. Scott.
“Because of that, people are scared! They are afraid to speak out,” she said.
Numbers vary but need for help is great
Service providers in the District of Columbia saw an initial uptick in calls for help and support, and crisis response teams have spent longer times on calls, according to Andrea Gleaves, strategic partnerships manager for the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Those reaching out for help need additional time and support to talk about what is happening, including their personal safety in this uncertain time, she explained.
“It’s really difficult at this point to have a really clear picture of how many calls and what the increase looks like and who is it impacting most. But we know from previous natural disasters and other sorts of public health emergencies that it’s not unusual for survivors to wait until after a crisis is over before they reach out for help,” Ms. Gleaves said.
Not all of the news, however, is bad and stats and circumstances vary depending on the place or part of the country.
Jan Christiansen, executive director of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, believes the state’s community-based shelters and programs have done an amazing job in figuring out how to keep their doors open and quarantine people if needed.
Shelters are using hotels, the FaceTime video call application and even collecting information during food deliveries, she explained.
While some agencies across the country chart a rise in domestic violence through increased hotline calls and requests at shelters, advocates said few survivors were willing to speak to media for fear for their lives.
Josh Rubenstein of the Los Angeles police department could not offer specific numbers about increased domestic violence incidents. But, he said, calls for service were not only up for LAPD, but advocates were also seeing increased hotline calls.
In Los Angeles, existing emergency protective orders have been extended from one week to 30 days due to the pandemic, and law enforcement officials launched a “Behind Closed Doors” campaign asking people to report suspected domestic, elder and child abuse.
It asks delivery personnel, home repair workers, neighbors, family and friends to text or call 911 if they believe someone needs help. Grocery stores distribute posters which include free hotline numbers, shelter information and legal resources available to domestic violence victims.
In the Big Apple, the police department is taking reports and checking on New Yorkers in all five boroughs through phone calls instead of face-to-face visits, while sharing safety plans and code words to communicate with anyone facing danger.
Domestic violence has progressively declined since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and protections put in place with New York’s state of emergency declaration, said a police spokesperson.
Since the beginning of the year through March 31, domestic violence reports dropped to 2,809 from 2,826, and fell to 902 cases from 1,065 for March 2020 compared to March 2019, the NYPD spokesperson reported.
“New York City has seen a reduction in overall domestic violence complaints in April, though our NYPD leaders remain concerned that these figures reflect underreporting by victims,” she added.
Physical abuse from lovers or loved ones is not the only concern during the pandemic. Black women are also dealing with unscrupulous landlords. One suburban New York activist said many of her clients have been sexually pressured.
“He tells you if you’re short or something on your rent, meet him down in his office. And if you do give him sexual favors, all he’s gonna give you is $40 off your rent,” she told The Final Call.
“This is happening right today, during coronavirus! One girl I know, she pays $1,200. She has a studio, four children in this studio, and two of her kids suffer from autism, and her apartment is a mess. No doors on the bathroom, roaches, bed bugs, and he knows this is going on, and the social service system, they’re not on our side,” she complained.
This landlord has been known to assault tenants, she continued.
“He’s actually broken a tenant’s arm … broke her arm because she filed a complaint against him,” she said.
The activist asked not to be identified. While people need to be held accountable across the board and she’s compelled to speak out, she is also worried about retaliation.
“If we complain … where does she take her children? But it’s not just her! It’s all of us who live in this community, because we live in a very low income area, and that’s the Black women, so I can imagine what he’s doing to the Hispanic and undocumented that live in this building,” she continued.
There have been other reports of landlords offering to forgive rent payments in exchange for sex. The practice is illegal.
An eviction moratorium on some federally supported housing programs was included in the multi-billion dollar bipartisan federal CARES Act signed by President Donald Trump. It expires July 24, 2020.
The moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent and fees and related penalties applies to all tenants under the federal low-income housing programs like Section 8 or project-based vouchers, and programs administered by the Office of Public and Indian Housing. It doesn’t matter if employment was affected by Covid-19, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Any rent missed will still be due at the end of the eviction ban. Renters must also sign a repayment agreement.
The Trump Administration and Coronavirus Task Force also authorized the Federal Housing Administration to implement an immediate foreclosure and eviction moratorium for homeowners with federally-insured single family, reverse mortgage, and direct home mortgages until the end of April.
The moratorium applies to all properties with a federally insured mortgage, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and properties covered by the Violence Against Women Act, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.
Nearly 40 states, commonwealths and territories have moratoriums on Covid-19 evictions, according to research led by Emily Benfer, visiting associate professor at Columbia Law School. Tenants may access a map of eviction moratoriums, which is updated daily, at https://www.rhls.org/evictionmoratoriums/. Evictions provisions vary by state.
Generally, landlords issue eviction notices, file lawsuits with courts, courts hold hearings, issue rulings, and sheriffs physically remove tenants who lose their cases. Few states cover all five stages despite the moratoriums.
New York has extended its moratorium until August 20, banned late fees and missed payment fees during that time period, and issued stays on orders or judgments.
The federal moratorium does not apply to eviction proceedings in process before Covid-19.
Los Angeles County expanded its rent freeze and eviction moratorium to cover all residential and commercial tenants in the county, except in cities that have already enacted their own policies.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed banned all residential evictions until July 22, except for those due to violence, threats of violence, or health and safety issues.
Oakland’s moratorium on evictions and rent increases above 3.5 percent during the crisis is set to end on May 31.
Evictions in the District of Columbia have been stayed until May 15, according to D.C. courts.
America under ‘house arrest’
“The entire nation is virtually under house arrest. As a result of that, many people have undergone dramatic changes in their way of life that we don’t see through mainstream media,” stated Student Minister Ava Muhammad, national spokesperson for the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
People are generally seeing visual images of the upper middle class to wealthy, who have the space, environment, and ability to satisfy the need for privacy, she said. They can retreat to swimming pools, basketball courts, and in-home gymnasiums, but most of the U.S. population doesn’t live like that, particularly Blacks, she observed.
Prior to Covid-19 stay home orders Blacks were often living in spaces inadequate for the number of people who stayed there, Dr. Muhammad noted. And, she continued, many deliberately stayed out all day or night to distance themselves from conflict and a lack of comfort in their apartments or homes.
“The problem is there’s been an environment created where there’s almost no relief because you’re not allowed to be outside unless you’re en route to a supermarket, a pharmacy or some ‘essential service’ and even then, not everyone has private transportation to do so,” she said.
Other people in domestic violence situations before the pandemic may have felt it was manageable, but things escalated with the virus, said Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, an L.A.-based psychologist.
The abuser may now have the ability to restrict the movement of victims, she explained.
“This person may know all of their contacts. This person may not really let them out of their sight with all the surveillance, not to mention the psychological bondage, where they break the victim down so that emotionally, they don’t feel capable,” she explained.
Women who feel able to seek help or leave are confronted with challenges of finding somewhere to live in the middle of a crisis, Ms. Bryant-Davis said. There is the challenge of fleeing an offender and uncertainty about where to go, she said.
“Any form of abuse, mistreatment, disrespect is not love. Even the stress of the virus or if your partner was laid off, or whatever they’re facing still does not make it excusable or okay,” said Ms. Bryant-Davis.
Sadiyah Karriem, a Houston-based criminal attorney and advocate, has found that despite the abuse and having no place to go themselves, women often don’t want to put their husbands or significant others out.
The women fear there is no place for the abuser to go outside of jail, she said.
Domestic violence victims in Houston can press charges, but abusers will just be released due to efforts to keep jail populations down to avoid the spread of Covid-19, the lawyer added.
“Victims’ rights are really down because of the stay at home orders so people feel mentally that they’re forced to stay with the abuser. Children are suffering most, due to added stressors on parents, but no one’s really talking about that,” said Atty. Karriem.
“Our arrest and detention policies regarding those charged with domestic violence haven’t changed during the pandemic,” countered Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the Harris County, Texas Sheriff’s Department. Houston is in Harris County.
“We definitely respond to domestic violence calls and make arrests when we have probable cause,” he said.
Harris County Sheriff’s Department statistics indicate domestic violence calls shot up nearly 20 percent in March (1,558 calls) compared to an overall 10.28 percent decrease between January and February.
Police policy in the City of Angles hasn’t changed either, according to Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore.
“However, the courts have specifically changed the bail policy, and those that are kept in custody, and that has impacted persons who are being held, accused of domestic violence,” he admitted. “It has resulted in a number of their release, and in other instances, early release from sentences,” Chief Moore told The Final Call during a Covid-19 update call with Black community leaders and media.
Chief Moore said he’s deeply concerned about the release of some who were in custody on charges of domestic violence driven by changes to the bail policy and shortened sentences to downsize jail populations.
Police are taking steps to warn victims of perpetrators’ early release, he said.
And, Chief Moore added, through philanthropic agencies, Los Angeles has been able to increase the number of domestic violence shelters by 50 percent.
Those needing shelter or services available through Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Project Safe Haven’s Covid-19 Emergency Shelter and Support Services can call several hotlines.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), connects callers to over 5,000 shelters and service providers across the country. The hotline also helps with protective orders, counseling, support groups, legal help, and more.