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The COVID-19 pandemic brought more than isolation to Norman residents, as local and county data shows that it also brought an increase in domestic violence cases.

According to data provided by the Cleveland County Courthouse, domestic violence crime filings — misdemeanors and felonies — increased 100% from 500 in 2019 to 1,000 in 2020.

According to data from District Judge Thad Balkman's courtroom, the following decisions were made on domestic assault and better cases throughout 2020:

  • Conviction, guilty plea: 31 in felonies, 7 in misdemeanors
  • Deferred, guilty plea: 9 in felonies, 7 in misdemeanors
  • convictions, Nolo contendre plea, 2 in felonies, 1 in misdemeanors
  • Deferred, Nolo contendre plea: 4 in felonies, 1 in misdemeanors
  • Dismissed by court: 3 in felonies, 2 in misdemeanors
  • Dismissed with costs: 1 in misdemeanors

However, protective orders filings were down 11.1% from 883 in 2019 to 785 in 2020, courthouse data showed. The Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office reported that civil protective orders processed decreased 19.27% from 934 in 2019 to 754 in 2020.

The difference in protection order numbers between the sheriff’s office and courthouse is due to where a person was served or place of residence. Sheriff’s office public information officer Joy Hampton said protective order filings aren’t always related to domestic violence incidents.

According to data from the Norman Police Department issued Jan. 12, 6,745 disturbance or domestic calls were received in 2020 compared to 5,830 in 2019, a 15.7% increase. This includes repeat service calls.

NPD provided a detailed list of actual reported domestic violence cases by case type:

• Domestic abuse (aggravated assault) increased 50% from eight in 2019 to 12 in 2020.

• Domestic abuse (simple assault) decreased 2.6 percent from 233 in 2019 to 227 in 2020.

• Domestic abuse against a pregnant woman (aggravated assault) increased 250% from two in 2019 to seven in 2020.

• Domestic abuse against a pregnant woman (simple assault) decreased 22.2% from nine in 2019 to seven in 2020.

• Domestic abuse by strangulation (aggravated assault) increased 30.2% from 53 in 2019 to 69 in 2020.

• Domestic abuse in the presence of a minor child increased 7.1% from 28 in 2019 to 30 in 2020.

• Domestic abuse in the presence of a minor child (aggravated assault) decreased 23.5% from 17 in 2019 to 13 in 2020.

• Domestic abuse in the presence of a minor child (simple assault) decreased 8.6% from 35 in 2019 to 32 in 2020.

• Domestic abuse with a dangerous weapon increased 23.8% from 21 in 2019 to 26 in 2020.

• The grand total of cases increased 4.8% from 377 in 2019 to 395 in 2020.

Local agencies reported working closely with the Women’s Resource Center on all domestic violence cases. The nonprofit provides emergency shelter, a 24/7 crisis line, counseling services, domestic violence forensic exams, safety planning, assistance with protective orders, individual counseling services and more.

Women’s Resource Center Executive Director Kristy Stewart said an increase in COVID-19 cases in Norman has led to a reduction in the number of people placed in the center’s shelter compared to 2019. From July through December 2020, 86 adults and children were provided emergency shelter, compared to 125 adults and children in the same time frame in 2019.

Residents in the shelter receive clothing, personal care items, meals, parenting assistance, individual emotional support and empowerment planning, Stewart said.

On average, residents are staying longer and moving into their own homes, she said. The shelter has remained open during the ongoing pandemic.

Stewart said the severity of domestic violence cases increased in 2020 during the pandemic. From July through December 2020, 80% of residents coming to the shelter had experienced strangulation, compared to 79% of residents experiencing strangulation in the same time frame in 2019.

Stressors and advice

An NPD detective who heads up a majority of domestic violence-related cases said the pandemic resulted in a number of added stressors, including loss of work, financial or food insecurity, and quarantining at home.

Those added stressors can result in increased violence and increased difficulty for victims to reach out to police or other community resources.

Oklahoma Assistant District Attorney Abby Nathan, who screens and prosecutes domestic violence cases, said other stressors include more fighting and substance or alcohol abuse as more people are home due to the pandemic.

Nathan said there are many reasons domestic violence victims find it difficult to leave their situations, including custody and financial issues.

“There’s a lot, but domestic violence in and of itself is so hard because it’s happening from someone that you love, so it’s difficult for victims to leave someone that they love, someone that they’ve had those moments with, that continue to hurt them,” Nathan said. “It doesn’t make the love necessarily go away. I think that that is primarily why the cycle of domestic violence is so insidious, so difficult for victims, because you get into a relationship, you fall in love, you continue to go forward and these things just begin to happen.”

Nathan said many victims feel that they can fix the abuse or blame themselves, but their situation isn’t their fault.

“You need to know that it does get better, that this is not the end,” Nathan said. “This isn’t the only relationship you will ever have. It doesn’t have to be this way. If you need help, there are resources out there. You just have to want help, and you have to come forward. And that’s the most difficult thing to do for most domestic violence victims.”

Stewart offered additional advice, for both those committing violence and victims.

For those committing violence, Stewart said they should contact a Batterers Intervention Treatment program in the area and get help and leave before deciding to abuse someone.

She encouraged domestic violence victims to identify a safe space in their home, have safe people to contact and a safe phrase or word to signify the need for help, get to know their neighbors, get a protective order if it won’t escalate the situation and call the 24/7 hotline, 701-5540, to get assistance in leaving, safety planning and referrals.

NPD said domestic violence victims who are in immediate danger can call 911 or the non-emergency number, 321-1444, at any time to speak with an officer or investigator, and they can set up a safe place to discuss their situation.

Due to the pandemic, Stewart said staff start conversations with victims understanding that the call might be disconnected and that there may not be a safe place to go.

“Shelters throughout the state are doing their best to make sure that we can put someone up in alternative shelter because of a COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic has made it harder to find transportation, so it may take longer to come into shelter,” Stewart said. “The staff will problem solve with them about friends or family that they can stay with temporarily and a safe place in their homes.”

She also said residents who need to leave domestic violence situations often have to choose their timing carefully and look for opportunities to leave, both of which the pandemic has made harder.

Stewart reported a low amount of reported male domestic violence victims. According to her data, three people of the 191 calls for shelter during the first six months of the fiscal year identified as male, and some men are currently enrolled in the nonprofit’s counseling services and have received exams at their rape crisis center.

Nathan said she has a few male clients reporting domestic violence crimes. However, there is a stigma for male victims to come forward.

“For victims of domestic violence who are men, they need to know that it’s just as likely that it could happen to you,” Nathan said. “There’s nothing that you did wrong to make that happen, and you should come forward, too. This is about the cycle of domestic violence and what it does to the victims, regardless of their gender.”

Law enforcement and court processes

NPD said domestic violence calls for service are high risk due to their often volatile nature, and the department strives to determine safe solutions for all parties involved while providing the victim with resources or solutions.

Additionally, NPD provides a lethality assessment on every domestic violence service call, which the victim can choose to complete or decline. The assessment is used for review and follow-up by investigators and can help connect a victim with resources.

NPD said if a domestic violence call yields an arrest based on the incident, the suspect is removed from the situation. If the situation doesn’t yield an arrest, officers will work with everyone involved to find a solution and encourage one party to leave.

After cases are determined, Nathan said she or another co-worker is assigned to the domestic violence case docket are responsible for considering charges against individuals. Every case that comes through the district attorney’s office goes through a screening process.

“It’s a very serious thing to charge somebody with a crime,” she said.

People charged with a misdemeanor count can face up to one year in county jail and up to a $5,000 fine. The first offense is generally charged as a misdemeanor, Nathan said.

Felony punishments differ, based on several factors. If a second offense is done within a certain time period, it draws a felony charge. If there was no prior felony conviction, Department of Corrections jail time ranges up to four years and up to a $5,000 fine, she said.

If a person is charged again after facing several felony convictions, the jail time increases to four years minimum up to life in prison, in some cases.

Nathan said if a first-time domestic violence offender causes great bodily harm (bone fractures, disfigurement and strangulation) to a victim, uses weapons and/or kidnaps someone (holds them against their will), they would be charged with a felony. Strangulation is now defined as a violent crime and can raise the minimum prison term to 20 years.

Stalking is considered a misdemeanor the first time, unless it’s in violation of a protective order or the victim feels harassed, she said.

Nathan said the district attorney’s office keeps the Department of Human Services involved in criminal cases involving children and makes sure the victim and children are safe.

“From our perspective, the safety of the child and the victim is of the utmost concern for us,” she said.

Nathan said the office has had quite a few cases where the victims withdrew complaints. However, the office can proceed with cases regardless of whether the victim participates or testifies, based on the evidence collected.

“We will continue to go forward in an effort to stop this kind of behavior, hopefully get defendants into intervention classes to hopefully stop that cycle of domestic violence,” she said. “We’re never going to force a victim or their children to testify, but we will continue to go forward based on the evidence that we have.”

Nathan said efforts to end domestic violence are important because domestic violence impacts the entire community, not just those involved in it.

“It impacts the community on a whole, the children that come from those relationships, things like that, so I feel very passionate about that,” she said.

Jamie Berry

366-3532

Follow me @JamieStitches13

jberry@normantranscript.com

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