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April 16, 2020

Domestic violence calls in Montgomery County spike during coronavirus pandemic

Officials say reports are up nearly 9%, which follows a disturbing trend of abuse throughout the U.S. and the world

Crime Domestic Violence
coronavirus domestic abuse Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Examining 911 and police department data in Montgomery County shows a rise in domestic violence reports after Pennsylvania instituted stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of the coronavirus on March 11, 2020.

An analysis of filed police reports and 911 calls in Montgomery County found an alarming 8-9% increase in domestic violence incidents since stay-at-home restrictions took effect during the coronavirus pandemic, the district attorney's office said Thursday.

The rise in these incidents began to occur around March 11, when the response to the public health crisis escalated, prosecutors said. That's also the date that the World Health Organization designated SARS-CoV-2 a global pandemic.

The data is not merely anecdotal, as in the recently reported case of a Pottstown man who strangled his wife to death earlier this month, according to the district attorney's office.

And the rise in domestic violence reports during the pandemic is not unique to Montgomery County. Similar upward trends in the numbers of incidents have surfaced around the world as communities respond to lockdown measures intended to curb the spread of COVID-19.

An unintended consequence of these restrictions is that many victims feel unable to leave abusive situations. Some worry that visiting family and friends for safety could expose them to infection. In Spain, one of the countries hardest-hit by the pandemic, the emergency line for domestic violence received 18% more calls in the first two weeks of lockdown than in the same period a month earlier, The New York Times reported earlier this month. Hotlines at other locations also have received more calls during the past month, according to The Guardian

In Montgomery County, detectives examined thousands of 911 calls and police reports from the Jan. 1, 2020, to April 12, 2020, which was compared to data from the same time in 2019. The same was done with data from incidents when police responded. Those statistics were collected from 34 of 50 police departments in the county.

Since March 11, as shown in the county's table below, daily reports have increased in each category.

DV Numbers MontcoSource/Montgomery County Detective Bureau

When adjusted for a typical increase in domestic violence during the springtime, detectives found that incidents rose by approximately 9%.

"The fact that 911 calls and police incident reports related to domestic violence are up is important to note because it means victims need help — and that some people are calling when they are able," Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele said. "And even more important is the fact that help is still available. Police in Montgomery County are still answering calls for assistance with domestic violence incidents and other crimes."

Steele cited the stress of the pandemic and its various consequences as possible explanations for the growing number of domestic incidents.

"Living in this unprecedented pandemic is a stressful time, with adults and children staying at home together, confined to close quarters while at the same time being upended from routines, friends, jobs and other constants of their lives," Steele said. "Add to that fears of getting coronavirus, job losses/layoffs and stress and you have a situation that can lead to tensions in even the best of relationships but especially where there is a family member who acts out physically and emotionally."

The Montgomery County District Attorney's Office said police departments will continue to respond to calls for domestic violence. Women who are in danger also are encouraged to contact Laurel House's 24/7 domestic violence hotline at (800) 642-3150. The Women's Center of Montgomery County can be reached at (800) 773-2424.

Both of these lines, answered by trained volunteers, can offer advice on services available, provide safety planning and get immediate safe shelter for victims and their children. The agencies also provide legal aid to help with writing and obtaining Protection From Abuse orders, which the courts are still processing despite the health crisis.

"As disturbing as these numbers are, it's likely that there are more disturbances and violence happening in homes that go unreported to police," Steele said. "I cannot stress enough that law enforcement and our partner agencies are here for victims of domestic violence. We are still making arrests and prosecuting these cases during this crisis. Our law enforcement community is here to help and so are some very caring people at Laurel House and the Women's Center. No one has to endure the pain and suffering of domestic violence."