Earlier this year I received a text from the captain of the Northern Police Station informing me that a 7-month-old baby boy had been brought to CPMC hospital on Van Ness Avenue with blunt-force trauma to the head. Tragically, the baby succumbed to his injuries — allegedly at the hands of a caregiver who had been arrested twice in the months prior for felony domestic violence. In those cases, the district attorney’s office did not file any charges and the suspect was released. The district attorney’s shocking excuse for not filing charges was rooted in antiquated notions of victim blaming — claiming the victim was not cooperative.
Unfortunately, it seems for the past two years, domestic violence cases have taken a backseat as “lack of corroboration” has become the routine excuse for not filing charges — a tragic and recurring trend likely to have deadly consequences. After hearing from domestic violence service providers in San Francisco that cases weren’t being filed, I asked San Francisco Police Department to provide data on all domestic violence arrests for the last quarter of 2020. The data revealed was disturbing: out of 131 felony domestic violence arrests, the district attorney’s office did not file any charges in 113 of those cases. Felony domestic violence cases are brutal, involving bodily injury and threats and often the use of a deadly weapon. Once again, no interventions were made to potentially break the cycle of violence.
I was dismayed to learn that many of these cases were dismissed due to “lack of corroboration” from the victim. This kind of thinking turns the clock back on years of domestic violence advocacy. The decision to prosecute a domestic violence case should not be left up to the victim. This only emboldens the abuser and fails to protect victims and often their children, too.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and it was created for a reason — domestic violence continues to be a widespread problem in our communities. Nationwide, on average, there are more than 20,000 calls placed to domestic violence hotlines per day. Every 16 hours a woman is shot and killed by a spouse or intimate partner in the United States. This month is a time to raise awareness and to reflect on what more can be done to support victims and survivors of domestic violence. It is also a time for action.
To address the ongoing domestic violence crisis, I’ve introduced a hearing to review the findings and recommendations made in the Family Violence Council’s (FVC) 10th annual report on family violence in San Francisco, a resolution urging the United States Senate to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and legislation requiring the district attorney’s office to quarterly report their actions on domestic violence cases.
COVID-19 AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
The threat of domestic violence has only grown during the pandemic. Increased time at home with abusers due to lockdown restrictions led to more volatile situations for many. In the case of children, time out of school reduced their exposure to teachers and caregivers who could identify and report signs of abuse. The impacts of the pandemic have exacerbated and highlighted the domestic, family, and elder abuse crisis that our city faces.
While it is difficult to measure what happened behind so many closed doors this last year, our emergency response system, nonprofits, and crisis lines for abuse saw an increase in calls from 2019 to 2020. The FVC reported that the number of calls to San Francisco crisis lines increased by 37 percent and calls to nonprofits assisting with restraining orders increased by 166 percent. Meanwhile, victims looking for emergency housing were turned away at a rate of 79 percent. That is unacceptable.
ACTION TO SUPPORT SURVIVORS
At my hearing on the FVC findings on Oct. 28, various department leaders will report on the status of family violence in San Francisco. This hearing has not yet occurred as I write this column, but the hearing will serve as a checkpoint for our departments to come together, reflect, and better support survivors of family and domestic violence.
Also at this hearing, the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee will vote on my legislation requiring the district attorney’s office to publish quarterly reports on how many domestic violences cases were presented to the district attorney, how many of those cases were pursued, what charges were filed, and what were the outcomes of each case.
If felony charges are filed, it’s important to know whether they are being settled for less significant charges, which happened in a case earlier this year. Although in that case the defendant held a loaded gun to the victim’s forehead in front of their 2-year-old son, threatened her with a knife, and beat her, the district attorney’s office pleaded the case down to a misdemeanor vandalism charge for the damage he caused to her phone.
The FVC report disclosed that the district attorney’s office only took action on 34 percent of cases dealing with domestic violence, stalking, or elder abuse. This is not enough, and it’s why my legislation demands transparency. We must do everything we can to support victims, and my legislation will help shine a light on whether this is occurring, or how badly it is not.
Domestic violence is a pervasive problem, one that needs our undivided attention and our commitment to the needs of victims, which includes resources, accountability, and justice. I won’t allow years of hard-fought domestic violence advocacy to be undone, or for victims of violence to be further victimized.