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Domestic violence cases have risen during pandemic, but help available, police say

Purple flags are placed at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in recognition of the thousands of individuals in Utah who are impacted by domestic violence each year.
Purple flags are placed at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in recognition of the thousands of individuals in Utah who are impacted by domestic violence each year.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Reports of domestic violence have been up in 2020 in many parts of Utah, according to law enforcers.

And with COVID-19 cases reaching record levels in Utah, winter weather setting in and the always stressful holiday season, police are worried there could be another uptick in domestic violence cases just as there was when statewide pandemic restrictions first took effect in Utah.

“It’s certainly a concern,” said Salt Lake police detective Michael Ruff.

Nearly all crime categories are up in 2020 in Salt Lake City, particularly violent crimes, Ruff said. And while he said the city has seen the spikes in domestic violence statistics that they traditionally see at certain points of every year, this year the numbers have been much higher.

Through Nov. 8, family-related aggravated assaults were up 40% for the year, according to Salt Lake police statistics. For the last three weeks of October through the first week of November, domestic violence-related assaults were up 77%.

And when the five-year average is looked at, domestic violence-related assaults are up 51%, according to the department’s statistics.

Like Salt Lake City, other areas of Salt Lake County have also seen a rise in domestic violence calls, said Unified Police Sgt. Melody Cutler. And detectives fear that may continue during the holiday season.

“There is absolutely a possibility that people being quarantined home together has led to the increase in domestic violence,” she said, adding that the stresses of the holidays and the uncertainty of COVID-19 can add pressure on many relationships.

In October, Unified police responded to 309 domestic violence-related calls, including two homicides, compared to 284 calls in October 2019. From Nov. 1 through Nov. 15, Unified officers responded to 48 domestic violence cases that were classified as “criminal,” meaning the incidents rose to more than just a verbal argument and typically included physical contact or property damage. That’s compared to 32 cases during the same time period in 2019.

And with people getting out and about less often, there is a concern that fewer victims are able to get help, said Elizabeth Sollis, a spokeswoman with the Davis County Sheriff's Office who also works with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.

But Sollis, police departments and social workers want victims and those afraid of becoming victims of domestic violence to know that help is still available.

And while quarantining may add to a family’s stress, the nonprofit group Canyon Creek Services in Cedar City stresses that government mandates such as staying home and wearing masks don’t cause abuse. Abusers cause abuse.

“While the number of individuals and families accessing our services during this time of response to COVID-19 has increased, our agency understands that these types of violence are not a direct result of the pandemic or any mandates associated with it.

“Domestic and sexual violence are caused by perpetrators choosing to commit violence,” the organization said in a statement.

The group’s statement was issued in response to Iron County Sheriff Ken Carpenter’s public statement proclaiming that he would not enforce Gov. Gary Herbert’s statewide mask mandate. Carpenter cited a rise in domestic violence, suicides and murders in his county since government mandates went into effect earlier this year. He believes more mandates are not the way to solve the problem.

Canyon Creek Services counters that domestic violence was a problem before the pandemic and will continue to be one when the pandemic is over.

“Addressing and preventing violence, like a virus, can be done using evidence-based, public health approaches. CCS is in full support of all state and federal public health recommendations related to COVID-19. CCS does not support the use of the current trends in violence perpetration as a tactic to advocate for something counter to expert public health recommendations and guidelines.

“Domestic violence and sexual assault will not cease by simply ending the restrictions or mandates put in place by public health and governmental organizations,” according to the nonprofit group. “If it wasn’t COVID-19, abusers would find another reason to justify their behavior. Abuse is not a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, abuse is a direct result of abusers.”

Sollis said calls to police for domestic violence incidents in Davis County are actually down from a year ago. But that isn’t necessarily reflective of what’s happening in the community, she said.

While calls to police are down, calls to help lines and social workers who help domestic violence are way up, she said. Sollis said the silver lining there is that people are reaching out to get the help that they need.

According to Safe Harbor, a group that offers services for victims of domestic and sexual violence in Davis County, it usually assists about 2,500 people per year, This year, the organization is on track to help 5,000 people. Sexual assault cases have nearly doubled in 2020, according Safe Harbor.

“We anticipate an increase in the amount of cases during the holidays. A few factors are tied with holidays, such as increased alcohol consumption, substance use disorder, family tensions and financial strain. Adding these risk factors to an abusive situation increases the likelihood of additional emergency crisis shelter services and safety planning.”

Other law enforcement agencies say they will also continue to encourage people to be proactive in taking the steps necessary to not become victims of domestic violence.

“We encourage those in the situation to have a safety plan in place. Any victim advocate can help you create one of those. They involve things like having a support system and somewhere to go in the event that things start to become heated,” Cutler said.

“More than anything it’s paying attention to our loved ones and friends. If you believe someone is involved in a domestic violence relationship, please reach out to them and talk to them. There are multiple victim advocates in every police department who are willing to help. Of course we have multiple community resources, the Family Justice Center, the YWCA, the Utah domestic violence hotline,” she said.

Free support is available around the clock by calling 1-800-897-LINK, where advocates will connect people with resources in their community. Or call 911 if it’s an emergency.

Sollis said other steps that can be taken to stay as safe as possible during a heated incident is for the person experiencing abuse to position themselves in a room with an exit to the outside — whether it’s a door or window; avoid rooms that may contain weapons such as a kitchen; have a safe escape route already mapped out; tell children never to get involved or put themselves between the victim and abuser; teach children how to call 911 and create a plan with a code word to let them know when to call police; ask neighbors to call the police if they see or hear an abusive incident; and keep a cellphone with GPS charged and hidden for calling 911. Sollis said the phone does not have to have service in order to use 911.

Other resources for domestic violence victims can be found at udvc.org/resources/prevention/safety-planning.html and udvc.org/resources/lethality-assessment-program.html.