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A coronavirus case curtails some operations at domestic violence court, even as hotline calls increase

Friday, April 03, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by David Jackson

Chicago police and domestic violence advocates say they were caught off guard this week when Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx announced she was removing prosecutors from the domestic violence courthouse for 14 days after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus.

Except in the most violent cases, prosecutors have stopped accepting criminal complaints in person from people seeking the arrest of their alleged abusers. The office said it is setting up a way to handle the complaints by phone. Also, people are being told they can petition in civil court for emergency orders of protection, then return in two weeks for a personal review by prosecutors.

The cutbacks come as hotline calls are ticking up amid the stay-at-home order and the stresses caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Aileen Robinson, coordinator of the Chicago Police Department’s domestic violence program, said she and others were working with the state’s attorney’s office late into the evening on Wednesday to find a way to restore full services to the Cook County Domestic Violence Courthouse at 555 W. Harrison St.

"In fairness to the state’s attorney, they are scrambling to come up with a timely solution in a bad situation,” Robinson said. “But I was not informed. I was infuriated and disappointed. We are in a crisis.”

The lack of screenings by prosecutors makes it more difficult for victims to get criminal charges filed against alleged abusers, and it also means victims may be given misleading information by officers unaware of the changes. Officers give victims safety information when responding to calls, including how to pursue criminal charges.

Confusion caused by the changes could make victims less likely to trust police and call for help the next time they need it, Robinson said. “We are potentially giving hundreds of victims misinformation. And if the victim gets incorrect information from the police, will they call the police next time? Maybe not,” she said.

Amanda Pyron, who runs the Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence, which operates a statewide hotline, said the cutbacks by prosecutors were made “without the knowledge and input of first responders, who should be aware that you are closing screening for two weeks.”

Pyron added: “Everyone else is communicating. This is truly an aberration to have a unilateral decision made that has such an adverse impact on public safety.”

Foxx’s office said in a written statement that it was working with police and others to implement a remote process where domestic violence survivors who arrive at the court building will be given the phone number of a prosecutor who can screen their case remotely.

“Prosecutors will review domestic violence matters remotely and in real time, similar to our felony review process. When appropriate, we approve arrest warrants and charges over the phone,” the office’s statement said. "Requests for criminal charges will be handled by telephone rather than in person.”

Civil emergency orders of protection can be still be obtained, the statement added. The office said victims could get answers and support on weekdays by calling 773-674-7200. Three prosecutors remain on-site at the domestic violence courthouse to handle bond hearings and pleas.

While overall crime in Chicago has dropped as the stay-at-home order forced people off the streets and inside their homes, domestic cases are now an increasing share of daily police work.

Chicago police logged 2,946 domestic violence calls during the week ending March 29, compared with 2,629 such calls for the same period in 2019. Police data analyzed by the Tribune shows that domestic violence reports constitute a rising percentage of calls taken by officers.

On March 22, fully a third of all reports Chicago police handled were classified as “domestic” crimes, where the victims were family members, intimate partners or others living in the same household.

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That is nearly double the daily percentage during the preceding weeks and months, and by far the largest single-day percentage this year, according to the newspaper’s analysis of police data on all 50,000 incident reports from Jan. 1 through March 25, the most recent date available.

Through early March, an average of about 17% of Chicago police crime reports were classified as “domestic” incidents on any given day. These include reports of domestic battery, assault and criminal damage to property, as well as offenses against children, the analysis found. That percentage began to climb in mid-March.

Pyron said calls to the Network’s hotline ticked up from a 2019 average of 65 to 68 calls per day to more than 80 on many days by the end of March.

On March 30, the Network recorded its busiest day of calls this year, with 104. For the month of March overall, there were 1,972 hotline calls, compared with 1,895 last year. One caller reported her partner was laid off due to the pandemic. Violence had increased in the home, so she was living in her car and feeling “safer,” Pyron said.

“I was as surprised as the advocates who showed up to court that day and learned that screening was closed,” Pyron said. “We’re all working in the same crisis. And what you do, you talk to people and keep them informed. Instead, they are not communicating with the domestic violence community that is trying to help them.”

dyjackson@chicagotribune.com



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