Opinion: Commentary: Domestic Violence Awareness Month in a Pandemic

Opinion: Commentary: Domestic Violence Awareness Month in a Pandemic

It is less than a month before a Presidential election which looks to have historical turnout and only three more months left in this awful year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sports teams are playing to empty arenas, our kids are learning remotely on-line, and none of us knows how to handle the upcoming Halloween.

Unfortunately, one issue remains the same and that is the problem of family violence. Indeed, October is when we, here in the Commonwealth, recognize Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It was designated as such by the General Assembly in 1989 and serves as an annual reminder of how important it is for us to continue to work to prevent domestic abuse and to treat and support survivors all across the Commonwealth. Domestic violence is characterized as a pattern of coercive behaviors used by an individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate, dating, or familial relationship.

In this moment in time, many of us feel a collective sense of trauma as we navigate the uncertainty of this pandemic. However, survivors of domestic and sexual violence have experienced this more acutely, as isolation has brought to the surface feelings of anxiety and memories of trauma, and an increased environment of danger for those with no other option but to shelter in place with former or current abusers.

While stay-at-home orders were necessary to prevent further spread of COVID-19 in our communities, the result is sadly an escalation of domestic violence. In fact, law enforcement agencies across the Commonwealth have reported spikes in domestic violence incidents since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some agencies say that domestic violence was their number one call for service over the summer. Unfortunately, that trend is likely to continue as stressors pile up on individuals, like loss of a job, and the strains on interpersonal relationships that come with families living in close-quarters for long periods of time. It was reported in The Virginian-Pilot that calls to domestic and sexual abuse hotlines increased by 76% statewide in March.

During this year’s General Assembly session, we took critical steps toward a goal to further prevent instances of domestic violence here in Virginia. We passed many pieces of legislation that went into effect in July and even now, are credited with saving lives.

Extreme Risk Protection Orders, or “red flag laws” are used now for the first time by law enforcement as a tool in many cases across the Commonwealth to temporarily remove weapons from individuals who have shown that they are a danger to themselves and others. Recognizing the link between firearms and intimate partner homicide and intimidation, this session we passed legislation that prohibits individuals subject to permanent protective orders from knowingly possessing a firearm while the order is in effect. My bill, HB 1044, was signed into law which raises the penalty for any person who deceptively installs or places an electronic tracking device and uses that device to track the location of any person without their consent. Victims of domestic violence are often tracked by their abusers. This offense is now a Class 1 misdemeanor, which elevates unauthorized tracking to the same level as stalking. Finally, The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Prevention Fund was created to develop, support, and evaluate programs that prevent sexual and domestic violence. While funding for this program was un-allotted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I am confident we will restore funding to this crucial cause in an upcoming General Assembly session.

Sexual and domestic violence programs remain open to provide crisis services, emergency shelter, and resource-based support. The Virginia Statewide Hotline is still here during this time (24 hours a day, 365 days a year) and ready to help, and so are sexual and domestic violence programs all over the state. If you or someone you know needs help, please call: 1-800-838-8238, text: 804-793-9999, or chat: https://www.vadata.org//chat/. To report a crime, call the Fairfax County Police Department at 703-691-2131 or, for emergencies, please call 911. Please stay safe out there and don’t hesitate to reach out for help. To support charitable efforts to combat domestic violence please consider donating to the Family and Children’s Trust Fund http://www.fact.virginia.gov/donate-2/ the organization in Virginia devoted to treating and preventing family violence across the lifespan.