‘There’s no escape’: Domestic violence fears in San Jose escalated by COVID-19
In this file photo, a survivor is seen walking with her daughter. Photo courtesy of Next Door Solutions.

A San Jose mother of four was 41 years old when she was sure she would die.

Pinned up against the wall, Rose Martinez laid motionless as her husband repeatedly kicked her all over her body after knocking her to the floor from a swift punch to the head.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, if he kicks in my head, I’m done,'” Martinez said.

After a few minutes, he stepped back. She quickly got up and bolted for the door. He darted after her before she made it to her car and drove off. That was the last time, she said, tears running down her face.

But she was no stranger to this.

For more than 20 years, Martinez endured countless beatings and repeated sexual assaults as she was belittled, disparaged and emotionally torn apart by her partner. She was used to the violence and tormenting, remembering the times he had pulled a knife out and threatened her with a gun.

“He was constantly calling me, constantly threatening me,” she added. “It was a nightmare that didn’t end until he was incarcerated.”

For most, being quarantined in their homes during the coronavirus crisis — away from disease, harm or danger — is safe. But for all too many, these threats exist inside the home, where being stuck with an emotionally or physically abusive partner can get worse or lead to deadly consequences.

At least 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives, but many advocates fear that isolation and a high-stress environment will cause those numbers to surge.

It’s already happening in coronavirus hotspots around the globe in countries like Italy and China and experts are worried shelter-in-place orders will put more victims at risk, giving abusers opportunities to strike.

“In times of community crisis, such as a natural disaster or some catastrophic event, we tend to see increases in violence,” said Esther Peralez-Dieckmann, executive director of Next Door Solutions, one of Santa Clara County’s oldest emergency shelter providers for survivors of domestic violence. “Under this current shelter-in-place order, the community is very stressed — families are under pressure, there’s already been displacement, people have been laid off of work.”

Despite the suspected rise in cases, San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia said violent crimes in the last week since the stay at home order went into effect were down by nearly 44 percent.

“The one interesting dynamic with domestic violence is that… they have not gone up,” he said. “As a matter of fact, in the last few weeks, with the numbers we have, they’ve gone down.”

From March 1 to March 21, there has been a 16.7 percent drop in reported domestic violence cases, with 17 cases in 2020 compared to 22 cases in 2019, according to police statistics.

But those numbers may not be a true reflection.

“We also know that domestic violence could be a very underreported crime,” Garcia added. “So it absolutely is on our radar.”

As a former survivor, Martinez can’t image how difficult it must be for women shut in with their abusers during the outbreak.

“When you’re in an abusive relationship, it’s almost like you’re walking on eggshells, just hoping that the person comes home from work and had a good day,” she said. “This is a scary time because that person is there 24/7. There’s no escape.”

Service providers feel strapped 

The stakes now feel higher for many service providers facing an onslaught of new challenges posed by the mandate, concerned a spike in calls will overwhelm providers.

Courts across the state are closed, which makes it difficult to navigate the legal system, while working remotely presents new challenges as many victims do not have access to a fax or printer at home to send and sign documents, said supervising attorney Alexis Moody from the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley.

The order means attorneys like Moody are increasingly using tools such as FaceTime and utilizing electronic signatures on behalf of their clients to file legal documents and restraining orders, which are considered essential services.

“The court is still hearing domestic violence cases, but the ability to walk into the courthouse and file is a little challenging,” Moody said.

But the pandemic has erupted a new set of fears for victims who are afraid of the risk of getting sick if they seek help.

“People are now in the position of weighing, ‘Is it safer to stay with my abuser or to live in a situation where I might get sick and then who takes care of my kids,'” added Moody.

Tanis Crosby, CEO of YWCA of Silicon Valley, one of the country’s largest providers of services and housing for survivors, said service providers are adjusting to coronavirus concerns by implementing social distancing, taking temperatures and increasing safety protocols and cleaning frequency in shelters and housing options for victims.

“There’s a whole continuum of support we can offer,” said Crosby, adding that YWCA is working hard to keep services 100 percent operational.

Next Door Solutions headquarters is pictured in this file photo. Courtesy of Next Door Solutions.

Peralez-Dieckmann said victims are most concerned about getting involved with systems by telling a health care provider about the abuse or reporting to law enforcement. Many victims are undocumented or prevented from having a job, she added, which their abusers use to control them in order to stay.

Those fears often make victims reluctant to come forward.

“It usually has to get to an extreme before an undocumented survivor will reach out for help,” Peralez-Dieckmann said. “We don’t have any guarantees. In the current climate we’re seeing a lot of movement from ICE. The survivors are definitely very worried.”

Police department leaders said officers will not report victims who report domestic violence amid the pandemic.

“We want anyone who is a victim of a crime to come forward,” San Jose police spokesman Sgt. Enrique Garcia told this news organization. “We don’t care and never ask about immigration status.”

San Jose Councilmember Sylvia Arenas, a longtime advocate of women and children, fears the city will also see a spike in child abuse and sexual assaults, as being stuck indoors for longer periods of time gives perpetrators an opportunity to act.

“In some of these overcrowded households, that’s exactly what we’re providing for some of these perpetrators — a crime of opportunity,” she said.

Arenas is advocating for more funding for law enforcement and weekly statistics to track the potential increase of new cases.

“During the times of crisis is exactly when we need to be more vigilant,” Arenas added. “This is not what people think about when they think about the COVID crisis, but we need to take a look at some of the dangers that are within some households in our city.”

Resources

  • Next Door Solutions’ 24-hour hotline at 408-279-2962 for obtaining food and basic needs, legal assistance and emergency shelter.
  • YWCA Silicon Valley at 800-572-2782 for immediate crisis assistance.
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available at 1-800-799-7233 and through chat. To create a safety plan, visit: Staying Safe During COVID-19.
  • For legal services, the Silicon Valley Law Foundation can be reached at 408- 280-2416.
  • If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.
Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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