To address the significant increases in domestic violence cases during its stay-at-home order, New York state has launched a special COVID-19 task force to support victims and survivors. Led by Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa, the task force has outlined a series of recommendations to update and improve domestic violence services, from mobile advocacy to better access to shelters and support groups. “In every crisis there's an opportunity,” DeRosa tells Vogue. “We're learning in real time from this pandemic, and it’s exposing the fissures in the system and where we are, where we’re headed, and what needs to change around the way we address domestic violence writ large.”
Amid lockdown in March, there was a 15% increase in domestic violence calls to the New York State Police, and in April and May, there was a 30% increase in calls to the New York State Domestic Violence hotline. “It shouldn't be that surprising when you consider the circumstances,” says DeRosa of the sobering statistics. “You've got a very high stress situation, people are trapped in their homes, emotions are running high... All these things together are like a toxic brew, which I believe resulted in this increase in domestic violence in New York and all across the country.”
The realities of sheltering in place were a concern for many domestic violence survivors and advocates, including task force member and president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) Ruth M. Glenn. “One of the tools perpetrators use to abuse and keep control is isolation,” Glenn explains. “So the moment that we understood the impact that [stay-at-home orders] were going to have on us as a nation, we immediately were very concerned about victims and survivors.”
The longer New Yorkers sheltered in place, the more it became clear to DeRosa that technology was the most important means of addressing the issue head-on. “You can't have a system that’s totally based on a hotline when you’re telling people they can't leave their house,” she explains. “How do you expect a victim in this situation to be able to communicate? That was the first crack in the system, and it opened our eyes to national outreach for domestic violence help [being] based on this outdated concept of a hotline.” Encouraging a more modern approach to reach more survivors, the task force suggests partnering with national technical assistance providers to enhance knowledge around the use of technology, as well as support for state agency programs that provide mobile devices. Other recommendations include providing flexible funding and housing navigations to meet the needs of survivors, removing the requirement that domestic violence victims file a police report in order to access the Crime Victims Fund, and increasing domestic violence screenings during tele-health visits. Overall, providing individuals with the different tools necessary to allow each survivor maximum, individualized control over their situation was paramount.
The way Glenn sees it, practical, personalized support goes hand in hand with both awareness and removing barriers for immediate access, particularly for the communities most in need. According to a 2018 report from the Department of Justice, instances of domestic violence against Black women are 35 percent than white women and 2.5 times the rate of other women of color. “Black women are disproportionately victims of domestic violence and we need to let our community centers, and those living in those communities, know that there are resources available and that they can trust those resources,” explains Glenn. “For most Black women, it's very difficult to trust and feel reassured that when they do reach out, something will be available for them.”
To ensure that the task force was directly addressing racial disparities, it tapped 27 advocates, service providers, and thought leaders from across the country, and within different communities, to pool their thoughts, feelings, and expertise. In addition to developing proactive solutions amid the global pandemic, it was equally important to lay the groundwork for long-standing, far-reaching change. “The most exciting part is that I think other states will see this as a model and use it to figure out how they can address the gaps in their own community to better help people to freedom, safety, and support quicker upfront versus in the end,” says Glenn.
With DeRosa scaling up the efforts, New York is continuing to prioritize women’s safety and health during the coronavirus pandemic, from addressing domestic abuse to maternal health. "The way we fight domestic violence needs to be more victim-centered rather than system-centered," says DeRosa. "There are certain groups around the country who have taken up similar approaches, but this is the first time a state government is doing so and it's something New York is excited to lead on."