Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Domestic violence and gun violence crimes have plagued America long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the subsequent shelter-in-place orders created an unintended side effect — the same order meant to protect public health is also fueling increased violence behind closed doors.

Since its genesis in 2014, members of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence (PAGV) have worked to reduce gun violence by advocating for new policies and pushing for improved enforcement of existing policies. The group held its eleventh summit on Thursday virtually.

“At our summits we focus on many issues from disarming domestic abusers to tackling mass shootings, but this summit is like no other,” said Mike Feuer, the Los Angeles City Attorney and Co-chair to PAGV. “It’s like no other because these times are like no other. One public health emergency, the prevalence of gun violence, has collided with another, COVID-19.”

He said that Thursday’s summit “took on” the unique public health collision. In the press conference after the summit, Feuer introduced some of the prosecutors that led key panels, including Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley.

“Our shelter-in-place order for many has been akin to a great ‘pause,’” Dudely said. “But from my perspective being a prosecutor for 30 years, I’ve been deeply concerned about great ‘paws.’ During this unprecedented time, I envision the great paws of an angry bear, or in our case a violent perpetrator.

“I see great big paws committing horrendous acts of domestic violence. I see paws holding down a spouse and raping her. And I see paws abusing the most defenseless among us — our children, our elders, and our pets.”

In a previous press conference, Dudley announced that in the first week after the shelter-in-place mandate was imposed, domestic violence reports in Santa Barbara County went up 21 percent. Though reports have steadily decreased since, Dudley directly attributes that to the victim’s fear of a sheltering in the same home as their abuser.

Zach Klein, Columbus City Attorney, another PAGV who also led a panel, agreed, adding that domestic violence rates are rising worldwide as well as nationally. He said his office worked to find other ways for victims to ask for help when they are trapped with their abusers.

“In the COVID-19 crisis, many victims are within earshot of their abusers,” he said. “My office, through the ingenuity and creativity of prosecutors on the domestic violence unit, created a text option. This gives victims the opportunity to move away from their abuser and text my office to receive help because not everyone can make a phone call.”

Klein said his city’s domestic violence reports have remained steady throughout the shelter-in-place mandate, so “there are definitely unreported crimes of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence in our [Columbus] community.” He said one issue is that victims might not know help is available because “with business and school closures it can be very confusing to know if we are open to help.”

Another critical topic at the summit was child abuse crimes, particularly at a time when children are isolated from most mandated reporters such as their teachers, pediatrition, or other adults. Bronx County District Attorney Darcel Clark said,“In my county during the pandemic, we are seeing an enormous drop in reports of child abuse. Unfortunately we do not believe it is because there are fewer incidents. 

We recently had a case where a 9-year-old boy was participating in a virtual gym class and the teacher saw his mother hitting him on the side of the video and the boy was crying hysterically,” Clark said. That teacher reported it and the incident is now under investigation. 

Clark cited tips she learned from Dr. Nina Agrawal, a child abuse pediatrician who spoke on the summit child abuse panel with her: pediatricians should screen children for exposure to guns and gun violence in discreet ways, that the community and surrounding family and teachers in a child’s life should be looking for signs of abuse or exposure, and that local governments can offer free gun locks to gun owners and parents with guns. 

“We also have to bridge the technology divide,” Darcel said. “Children from communities of color and poor communities don’t have the technology to participate in virtual school, which is a tool for us to be able to continue to keep an eye on them.”

The full schedule of PAGV panel topics from the nonprofit’s eleventh.  

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