Domestic violence reports in Billings have increased in recent months, and city prosecutors are working to keep pace.
"I hate to say I’m getting used to it, but I'm getting used to triaging more than I ever have been,” said Deputy City Attorney Ben Halverson, the city's dedicated prosecutor for domestic violence cases.
Advocates and service providers for victims of domestic abuse predicted a swell in violence as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, pointing to past correlations between times of crisis and upticks in family violence.
In Billings, Halverson has seen a steady increase in his workload and believes it's attributable to the pandemic.
"There's no other way to explain it," he said.
At 732 cases so far for 2020, the year is well on track to outpace 2019's total of 878 cases.
Halverson said anywhere from 600 to 800 cases a year is typical.
The city sees yearly spikes in domestic violence around the holidays — when everyone is packed inside due to the weather, and there may be visiting family members, drinking and financial stress, according to Halverson.
But during the summer, there's no routine increase. Halverson said that aside from the cold weather, the same factors that drive violence during the holidays could be at play now, with more crowded homes as schools, work places and entertainment options have closed or been limited, and increased financial stress with many left jobless.
Halverson said he is prioritizing cases based on risk to the victim. Especially between intimate partners, verbal threats and controlling behavior make the case more urgent. When it's an issue of situational violence and no controlling behavior is present, the case drops on the priority list.
Factors known to increase the risk to victims of intimate partner violence include the presence of a gun, jealous or controlling behavior and financial losses and unemployment by the perpetrator.
The city attorney's office handles only misdemeanor cases, while the county attorney’s office handles felony cases.
County Attorney Scott Twito said his office has seen a recent increase in strangulation cases, in addition to the spate of shootings and stabbings the county has seen during the past several weeks. He said it's plausible that could be driven by factors related to the pandemic, but without reviewing the details of each case, he couldn't know for sure.
Erin Lambert, chief operating officer at the YWCA in Billings, said demand for shelter and legal services is high.
"It may not be that there's more domestic violence happening, but because of job loss or other wage considerations or child care considerations, it has become harder for a survivor to escape without the support of a program," Lambert said.
Lambert said the YWCA was able to move eight households into permanent housing when the pandemic first hit Montana, and it has found permanent housing for five more households over the summer.
The YWCA shelter returned to full use when the state entered Phase Two of the reopening plan. Residents are required to wear masks in any communal area.
Lambert said no YWCA clients had yet tested positive for the new coronavirus.
Like many women's shelters, the YWCA has turned to hotels to rent rooms to ensure appropriate distancing and because demand is up.
Lambert said the organization received some COVID-19 related relief money from state nonprofit grants and from the federal Paycheck Protection Program but will continue to seek private donations to meet demand.
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