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'Life-or-death' domestic violence is on the rise

Law enforcement data seem to show little change in Southern Oregon’s domestic violence rates during the COVID-19 pandemic, but those who work with domestic violence victims say they’re seeing more serious injuries than ever before.

Barbara Johnson, executive director of Community Works, said calls the nonprofit is getting more frequently involve women who have been badly beaten or in life-or-death situations.

“The people who are calling us, they’re close to being murdered — they’re close to being killed,” Johnson said.

Between March 1 and May 6, Medford police had only seven more domestic violence calls than the 532 it received during the same period in 2019, according to statistics provided by Medford police, and two fewer restraining order violations in 2020 than the 80 it responded to last year.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office showed similar data. According to JCSO spokesman Mike Moran, the agency saw a decrease in domestic violence calls during the first month of the state’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” order. Between March 13 and April 12, deputies responded to 55 non-criminal domestic violence calls or calls for service that didn’t result in an arrest, compared to 61 at the same time in 2019.

“Overall, calls for service are down compared to prior years,” Moran said in an email.

Johnson said she’s also seen a drop in the number of calls to their 24/7 domestic violence crisis line — nearly 40% in March compared to the same time last year — however, she estimates her agency is seeing a “100%” increase in the number of helpline callers who are victims of what the nonprofit classifies as “lethal” violence during the pandemic.

Johnson described domestic violence that left victims with broken jaws, involved firearms, included strangulation and one that caused a pregnant victim to miscarry.

Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, victims of lethal violence made up roughly a quarter of Community Works’ domestic violence cases, according to Johnson.

“Now we’re seeing every one of them is this high a level,” Johnson said.

Johnson said one of the reasons helpline calls are down is that domestic violence victims are now trapped at home with their abuser more often. Because there are fewer moments where victims can break away, calls for help don’t happen until it reaches a life-or-death situation.

“Right now they can’t even get on the phone,” Johnson said. “As a result, the abuse is happening, but it’s escalated because they can’t get away from it.”

Jackson County Deputy District Attorney Michael Cohen, whose caseload is nearly all domestic violence cases, said he also has seen a significant rise in cases involving “substantial” physical injuries to victims. Cohen said he is seeing fewer misdemeanor domestic violence assault cases — which typically involve pushing or shoving, no lasting injuries and no child witnesses — and “definitely noticeable” increases in more severe felony cases.

“There have been some pretty serious domestic violence cases that have come in because people have been forced to be with their abuser,” Cohen said.

Statistics weren’t immediately available to document an increase, but Cohen said he and Deputy District Attorney Nick Geil, who also handles domestic violence cases, see new cases on close to a daily basis.

“Almost every day we have at least one domestic violence case that’s lodged (in jail) — whether it’s a violation of a no-contact order all the way to cases like attempted murder,” Cohen said. “It’s really unfortunate.”

Cohen agreed with Johnson’s assessment that even though calls are down, they’re more severe, saying that Community Works keeps “really good statistics.”

Compounding the issue, according to Cohen and Johnson, are social distancing measures at the Jackson County Jail meant to prevent COVID-19 from getting into the facility. As part of those measures, Jackson County Jail capacity has been reduced by roughly a third over the past month, down to 215 beds from the pre-pandemic capacity of 315.

“People charged with felonies are not staying in jail either,” Cohen said. “It’s pretty concerning.”

Even before the pandemic, the jail had to release many inmates early every year because of the size of the facility. In a press release May 8, Sheriff Nate Sickler said there are “no good choices” in deciding who gets released early.

“We are not happy to force release anyone from custody, but we have too many offenders and not enough bed space,” Sickler’s statement said. “This has been exacerbated by COVID-19.”

Many abusers are emboldened because they know they won’t be incarcerated during the pandemic, Johnson said, and the reduced jail capacity exacerbates one of the most dangerous times for women in an abusive relationship: when the victim tries to leave.

“It’s far more dangerous for a victim/survivor to try to leave their abuser than to try to stay with their abuser,” Johnson said.

The pandemic has also impacted Community Works’ Dunn House Shelter, which offers victims of domestic violence and their children a secure place to stay. Dunn House was full before the pandemic, according to Johnson. Although the shelter is “always full,” turnover has become a greater challenge.

In the past, Dunn House could arrange spaces at partner shelters around the state for women with no safe place to go, or help victims arrange to live with a relative.

“Those options are gone — they’re just gone,” Johnson said.

Some women at the 30-day shelter are on their second, third or fourth month, but Community Works isn’t turning new victims away.

Instead the nonprofit is arranging hotel rooms for domestic violence victims. In April, Community Works housed 22 adults with 24 children in hotel rooms.

“Yes we’re incurring more costs because of this, but we also know that we need to do it,” Johnson said. “They don’t have other alternatives.”

In the short term, the nonprofit has used donations from ACCESS and the city of Medford to fund the hotel stays, along with hotels who’ve offered to help.

She described that outreach and aid as “a real positive,” but the bigger challenge is how they can keep helping longer term.

“We’re looking into what this is going to look like as our agency goes into the next 6 to 12 months,” Johnson said. “We don’t have any program revenue, it’s not like we sell any services — everything’s through grants and donors.”

Victims of domestic and sexual violence can call the Community Works 24/7 helpline at 541-779-4357 or 541-779-HELP. For information on how to donate to the nonprofit or volunteer, see www.community-works.org.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Mail Tribune Illustration / Jamie Lusch