By Joseph Marciano, Staff Writer
When Governor Phil Murphy signed the stay-at-home directive on March 2020, his message to New Jersey residents was: Stay SAFE. Stay HOME. In reality, numerous women were not SAFE when this directive forced them to continuously stay HOME with their violent abusers. Experts and health professionals predicted that a rapid increase in domestic violence would happen shortly after this ‘lock down’ started. But after weeks of isolation, the number of reports was shockingly lower than expected. Anti-domestic violence advocates continued to hold their breath, because they knew the reality was much worse than what the data depicted.
So why did domestic violence victims not file reports against their abusers during isolation?
The victims felt ALONE. The stay-at-home directive created a false understanding that the resources available to women were closed, just like the rest of New Jersey’s businesses. Even if the women did know that the resources were open, the risk of going out in public and contracting the coronavirus prevented them from leaving. In addition, women now lacked the necessary privacy to call and report the abuser. They feared the consequences of being overheard by their abuser, who was often in the same room.
A major factor discouraging women in impoverished communities was the financial uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Victims were reluctant to report domestic abusers that provided a secure income for the family. Lastly, immigrants frequently refused to report because they feared being deported once the police took control of their case.
Government officials became aware of this fearful reality and influenced Governor Murphy to respond one week later. The Governor tweeted: “stay-at-home measures did not apply to victims seeking help.” The idea was to help victimized women felt like they were NOT ALONE.
Weeks later, domestic violence indicators displayed a significant increase in the frequency of women filing reports and calling hotlines in New Jersey. That indicators also revealed that the severity of the violence reported increased as well. However, this increase not only occurred throughout the United States, but throughout the rest of the world. The United Nations (“UN”) reported a 20%-25% increase in women domestic violence victims across the UN’s global members. What caused this global, rapid spike in violence against women?
Experts and psychologists identified numerous factors. One expert said that requiring financially and emotionally stressed people to isolate created the ‘perfect storm’ for domestic violence. Another expert blamed the ‘fear of the unknown’ causing people anxiety that they may have coped with if resources, such as therapists or psychologists, were easily accessible.
Overall, people were irritated and worried. The pandemic caused uncertainty: how long will this isolation last? Will I lose my job and income? Will my family and I survive if infected? With an anxious, violent population, how did the New Jersey Courts deal with this turmoil?
New Jersey kept municipal, and family, courts open in every county to handled applications for temporary restraining orders (“TROs”) regardless of the unprecedented circumstances. Even though TROs were available, domestic violence reports remained high and disproportionately affected women in impoverished and marginalized communities. But why were the TROs ineffective?
The New Jersey Courts exclusively held hearings virtually, but impoverished women did not have the proper technology to testify. Also, impoverished women choose not to file for TROs to prevent the abuser from moving out and losing their job. These women sacrificed their own safety and mental wellbeing for their family’s financial security. In general, women were afraid to testify without the heightened security provided at court. Testifying at home was extremely dangerous for women in the same home as their abuser.
Although the New Jersey Courts made some adjustments, like permitting women with TROs to complete parenting exchanges through a ‘curbside pickup’ method, plenty of questions remain unanswered. But now that a COVID-19 variant emerges, what can these victims do?
In response to the increase in violence against women, resources like shelters, hotlines, and victim services centers are currently available. When Professor Victoria L. Chase, Director of the Domestic Violence Clinic at Rutgers Law School, was asked what victimized women should currently consider, she responded, “It is not a simple question. [W]omen in these circumstances exhibit a great deal of agency and restraining orders are not a perfect solution. Many are tied into the vast net of victim services, and that is a step I would recommend.” Victim services are essential for women coping with the trauma of domestic violence. These services provide a sense of security and reinforce that the victims are not alone.
When it comes to the victim leaving her home, Professor Chase said “Leaving . . . may take some time and planning. There are professional staff at these agencies willing to help with that.” However, Chase continued to mention that housing shortages are highly problematic for victims. A domestic violence report published by Seton Hall Law School recommends that New Jersey lawmakers should resolve this housing shortage problem by “allocate[ing] financial resources to address the long-term affordable housing needs of domestic violence survivors.” The report also recommends the extreme need for policies to adequately deal with economic and racial inequalities that contribute substantially to the increase in domestic violence.
Although the pandemic is not over, and there is plenty of work to be done, efforts are being made to stop this increase in violence against women. Regardless of the circumstances, women should not feel threatened and uncomfortable residing in their own home. In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic added numerous women to its long list of victims.
Staff Writer Joseph Marciano is a second year law student at Rutgers Law School (Camden) with a focus on Litigation. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Scranton in Political Science and he hopes to get involved in American Politics later in his career.