Family Justice Center, Asheville, due to open in August 2016. Michael Gebelein / Carolina Public Press

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Even in the best of times, domestic violence agencies see brisk business in North Carolina. In the midst of courthouse and government closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates for domestic violence victims say you can still get help.

N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley closed courthouses around the state for all but the most urgent business through the middle of April.

Victims typically can visit a magistrate to obtain a temporary protection order or, in a few counties, submit paperwork online with the help of domestic violence support organizations.

But the pandemic has upended the usual process, and victims and advocates are having to navigate new ground in what has always been a patchwork, county-by-county system.

“There is a large variation in how, when and where local courthouses are accepting filings and holding hearings,” said Sherry Honeycutt Everett, the legal and policy director for N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

While stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus restrict nonessential travel, many of those orders exempt domestic violence victims, people experiencing homelessness and those seeking medical care.

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While most court hearings are being postponed, people can still file for protection orders in most courthouses. In some areas, you can file for a protection order remotely, and some hearings regarding domestic violence will continue either over video link or telephone, depending on the county.

Potential for domestic violence

Experts generally expect a surge of domestic violence calls during times of economic or social upheaval. A study showed families that experienced job losses or other economic shocks during the Great Recession were more likely to experience domestic violence.

“Further, rapid increases in the unemployment rate increased men’s controlling behavior toward romantic partners,” according to the study, published in the journal Demography.

Honeycutt Everett said in a call Thursday night with other advocates for victims of domestic violence that the effects of COVID-19 are all over the board.

Children are not in school, and teachers or counselors who would normally report abuse do not see their students anymore.

Since medical and dental providers have ceased all nonessential procedures and appointments, medical staffers who screen for domestic violence are not seeing their patients.

“It looks like some are seeing a decrease,” Honeycutt Everett said of domestic violence advocacy organizations.

“But the decreases are probably because people aren’t knowing how to find them. In places where referral avenues are still open, there have been increases — and in some cases huge increases.”

Holly Jones, with the N.C. Department of Justice, said the few domestic violence advocacy organizations she’s talked to have said calls for help are actually down. Jones works with advocacy organizations and law enforcement around the state regarding victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“They are stuck,” she said of the victims. “How do you get to a safe place to make a call? And what do you do if you’ve lost your job?”

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Though calls are down, Jones said she expects instances of domestic violence to rise, and abusers will spread misinformation about COVID-19 to manipulate their targets.

“I think it’s a bigger problem than the recession because people are stuck in their houses,” Jones said.

Those looking for help can find resources at the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence website or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-7233.

To see which courthouses are currently open and what services they offer here, view this coronavirus link on the state courts website.

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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