That’s just a fraction of the cases that Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse, or CORA, the only provider focused solely on domestic services in San Mateo County, has heard over the course of the past year.
Reports of domestic violence increased by 8.1% nationwide during the pandemic due to factors like social isolation and economic stress, although the true number is likely grossly underreported. According to CORA, the spike also came with a higher severity of abuse and complications to a legal system that was already difficult to navigate for many survivors.
“There’s more physical altercations between couples. Strangulation has definitely increased, and weapons being involved has definitely increased,” said Celeste Mercado, manager of crisis support services at CORA.
Strangulation is often a precursor to an escalation in violence. Strangulation victims are 750% more likely to be killed than those who have never been strangled, according to The Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention. A 2018 report by the Oklahoma Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board found that in many intimate partner homicides reviewed over a decade, there was a history of nonfatal strangulation.
During the height of the pandemic, the organization saw a 37% average increase in calls to its 24-hour bilingual crisis hotline and an average 18% increase in calls to its legal services hotline. Housing requests skyrocketed as well, while health guidelines forced capacity limits on shelters over the Bay Area.
At CORA, which operates the only safe houses for survivors and their children in the county, capacity limits led to an average 46% decrease in stays despite surging need.
“But we didn’t say no to anyone,” Mercado said. “Even though we had internal challenges, our clients were always served.”
Instead, CORA redirected survivors toward other agencies with shelter capacity and ramped up its hotel housing program. Hotel stays increased by an average of 237% during the early months of the pandemic, which wasn’t cheap, but ensured that no client was turned away due to limited resources.
The pandemic also led to challenges for survivors seeking legal protection from their abusers. In San Mateo County, Bay Area Legal Aid typically runs six restraining order clinics every week where clients can receive legal guidance and resources. When that service shifted online, capacity significantly decreased.
“Previously, we were able to funnel people who needed to apply for a domestic violence restraining order to the clinic and know that they would be able to get help within a day,” said Melissa Gibbs, manager of legal services at CORA. “With the reduced capacity, now it’s taking four or five days to be able to meet with somebody to get assistance.”
The county family law facilitator’s office, which is another source for restraining order guidance, closed its office completely when the pandemic hit. It’s since transitioned to a live chat model, which has led to challenges for clients who don’t have stable internet access or a reliable and secure device.
“A lot of our clients are low income, and they might be a monolingual speaker of a language other than English,” Gibbs said. “Trying to access services remotely isn’t always the easiest for them.”
For those who were able to file restraining orders, uncertain court schedules in the beginning of the pandemic delayed hearings for weeks. While the court system remained open to accept and issue emergency restraining orders, in-person hearings were paused in March 2020. It wasn’t until May that remote hearings resumed via Zoom for interim orders and decisions such as custody, visitation and child support.
For some clients, the virtual hearings were a relief because they didn’t have to be in the physical presence of their abuser. But for others seeking resolution on their cases, the delays exacerbated feelings of anxiety and stress.
“The court systems prior to the coronavirus pandemic were heavily stressed and burdened,” Gibbs said. “The coronavirus pandemic just compounded that exponentially, across all different practice areas.”
Nearly a year later, the court system will resume hearing domestic violence restraining order cases in full on April 14. Hearings that will move forward and come to a judicial decision will take place in person and virtual options remain available for other cases.
While the pandemic has significantly increased the need for services, Mercado stresses that the organization is well-equipped to assist anyone seeking help.
CORA’s 24-hour crisis hotline is available in English and Spanish every single day of the week for callers seeking shelter, safety planning, mental health programs and more — and even if clients simply want someone to talk to about their situation. That includes individuals who may be unsure if they’re experiencing abuse and want a second opinion from a crisis counselor.
“We’re always there, no matter where you’re at or what the need is,” Mercado said. “We’re here to provide support with no judgment.”
The legal services hotline is open during regular business hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. CORA’s trained attorneys can provide advice and information regarding criminal abuse cases, as well as offer assistance with understanding a victim’s role in the criminal process, restraining orders, child custody, divorce and more.
In-person legal and crisis services are also available for those who can’t access remote services. For clients who may not be able leave their household or speak on the phone, CORA can also provide assistance via email if informed that the avenue is safe. “That’s really the philosophy of CORA: We follow the lead of the survivor,” Gibbs said.
“You’re not alone. When you’re able and ready to reach out for support, reaching out for support doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do anything,” Gibbs added. “But it’ll give you the knowledge to make an informed decision about what’s best for you and your family.”
If you feel you are in serious danger, please call 911. Call (800) 300-1080 to access CORA’s 24-hour crisis hotline. Call (650) 259-1855 to access CORA’s legal services hotline, which is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. Visit corasupport.org for more information on services provided by CORA and hsa.smcgov.org/children-family-services for more information from the San Mateo County Children & Family Services. For more information on how to register to speak with an experienced domestic violence attorney, visit smclawlibrary.org.