A depressed woman
Photo illustration via Pixabay

When Gov. Gavin Newsom directed that Californians shelter in place to avoid COVID-19, his order struck terror in the hearts of one particular group: victims of domestic violence, who fear the prospect of staying at home for weeks on end with their abusers.

There are alternatives to such a dangerous confinement, however, even during a public-health crisis.

Serving victims of domestic violence remains a top priority for my office, and while the San Diego Family Justice Center is no longer able to work with victims in person, we are still providing the same critical services and referrals to help ensure their safety.

This is an especially concerning time for us. Experts have long recognized that emotional stressors — such as unemployment, child-care issues, and food insecurity — can all increase the risk of harm to victims of domestic violence, as does the presence of guns in the home. People’s lives are upended by violent relationships every day, yet it is clear that domestic violence incidents are already climbing, exacerbated by sheltering in place, job loss, and the closure of daycare and schools.

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The Family Justice Center has adapted to changing times. Our dedicated staff are available by phone to provide safety planning and advocacy and to connect victims to community resources. Victims can receive these services by calling: 619-533-6000 Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., or the San Diego Domestic Violence Hotline at 888-385-4657 on evenings and weekends. For emergencies, always dial 9-1-1.

Referral services include:

  • Counseling sessions and telemedicine services using telephone and video sessions
  • Forensic medical examinations offered by Palomar Health
  • Assistance with finding emergency housing
  • Legal advice and restraining orders provided by partner agencies and volunteers, including the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program, pro bono attorneys, and immigration attorneys
Mara Elliott
Mara W. Elliott

Across the county, domestic violence organizations are working together to respond to a new and unprecedented reality. Domestic violence shelters have increased their capacity and, when possible, branched out, and our law enforcement partners are finding ways to assist those who are hard to reach while sheltered in place. The Superior Court has committed to keeping a judge available to adjudicate protection order petitions. This type of governmental and non-governmental commitment helps create safer communities even in the face of this devastating u public health crisis.

In the upcoming weeks, the challenges will undoubtedly be great, and our resources will be spread thin. Lawyers we will be asked to prepare protection orders remotely without personal interaction and we expect that many victims will not have a computer or printer to obtain a hard copy of the petition. Mental health providers will learn how to best engage in cognitive behavioral therapy through telemedicine. Motel rooms and shelter space will be heavily taxed. But despite these challenges, for many individuals fleeing domestic violence, the Family Justice Center and our partners will be their only lifeline.

Domestic violence victims have always had to adapt to new circumstances to rebuild their lives. Now is not the time to give up on them. The strength of the Family Justice Center has always been our ability to respond and meet the needs of victims in our community. This will not change in the current pandemic.

As we are called upon to adjust to uncertain times, let us learn from the strength of domestic violence victims and be there for them in their darkest hours.

Mara W. Elliott is the City Attorney of San Diego.