Updates – Supporting Victim/Survivors of Domestic Violence during the COVID-19 Pandemic

What’s New? The following article provides updates to our previous blog published March 26, 2020.

On April 30, 2020, Governor Walz issued Executive Order 20-48, which extended the Stay Home Order until May 18. The order is intended to continue to slow the spread of the virus, while allowing some people to return to work. In particular, this order allows retail businesses and non-critical businesses to resume operations with curbside pick-up.

In response to the Governor’s order, The Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea issued another order that extends the limited physical access to courthouses until May 18. Parties are encouraged to use virtual technology, when possible, to conduct hearings and all jury trials are suspended until at least June 1, 2020.

How does the new order affect victim/survivors of domestic violence?

Like previous orders, Minnesotans can leave their homes if they are unsafe, call 911 and/or seek and obtain emergency services. Victim/survivors can also file for a Harassment Restraining Order (HRO) or an Order for Protection (OFP). Judges will issue emergency orders if an imminent risk of physical harm exists.  A hearing may be scheduled if the judge determines that the emergency order creates a public or personal safety concern that must be addressed.

Domestic violence shelters remain open, and domestic violence advocates remain “critical sector workers,” under the Governor’s order. Shelter availability may be more limited due to more social-distancing within shelters. Call 1.866.223.1111 to find a shelter and services in your area.

How do I know if my hearing will be conducted remotely?

If you are a party to a case, the Court will contact you about the scheduling and manner of the hearing. You should contact either district court administration of the assigned judicial officer if you have received information yet.

Hennepin County District Court at (612) 348-6000 Ramsey County District Court at (651) 266-8266 Washington County District Court at (651) 430-6263 Stearns County District Court at (320) 656-3620

If you can wait up to 3 business days for a response, you may send an email. My hearing will be conducted remotely. How should I prepare?

The MN Judicial Branch advises all participants to follow these best practices for remote hearings that are held both with audio and video or else audio (telephone) only:

  • Find a quiet, well-lit place for clear and distraction-free audio and video. Turn off TVs, radios, and phone notifications. If there are others around you, try moving to a room with a door you can close.
  • If joining by video, find your device’s video camera and make sure it is uncovered. Position the camera at eye level so others can see you clearly.
  • If possible, make sure your device is plugged into a power source and not running only off battery power.
  • Dress in solid colors, and be mindful of what is behind you.
  • Use headphones, if possible, for the best sound quality and the fewest background noises.
  • Mute yourself when not speaking.
  • Identify yourself each time you speak.  The court reporter may not be able to identify individual speakers without identification.
  • Speak one at a time and pause before speaking in case there is audio or video lag.  Do not interrupt.  The court reporter can only take down one voice at a time.
  • Enter your first and last name when you join. If you are an attorney, identify which party you represent. For example, Joan Lawyer, Attorney for the Petitioner.

For more information, visit the MN Judicial Branch’s webpage on remote hearings.

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A Volunteer Reflects

Sydney Goggins, University of Minnesota Law Student and WATCH volunteer

Going into a courtroom for the first time compared to re-entering a courtroom after a semester of law school are wildly different experiences. My first time in the courtroom was with WATCH, a court monitoring and judicial policy initiative of The Advocates For Human Rights, when I was 18. I was overwhelmed, excited, and confused but eager to learn. The cases moved so fast and it felt like the lawyers and judges were speaking in a foreign language. The lawyers’ clients, if present, seemed just as confused as me. It was not how I had imagined court at all. Similar to many Americans who have never been in courtroom, I was picturing a scene similar to television, a lawyer screaming “this court is out of order!” at the judge after a passionate argument. However, the reality within a courtroom is a more procedural process. Lawyers coming in and out stating what they needed from the judge and leaving, the judge rapidly shuffling through papers, and the occasional defendant coming out in handcuffs. I left the courthouse that day inspired and excited to understand the inner workings of the process. I wanted to be a part of it all. 

Fast forward to when I was 21 years old, re-entering a courtroom for the first time after a semester of law school. Things made sense and the process felt familiar and easy. While the lawyers’ arguments were not the passionate, powerful arguments you see on television, I could understand how and why they were making arguments for their clients. I found excitement in the little things that I hadn’t seen or noticed before. Filing motions, writing briefs, and dealing with the procedural issues is necessary work in order to win a case. In law school, especially during your first year, there is a disconnect between what we are learning and how it is applied in practice. WATCH has provided me confidence in a courtroom and in front of a judge that many other students may not yet have. Volunteering for WATCH allows me to bridge the gap between my legal education in the classroom and how this information I am learning is put into practice in the courtroom. 

By Sydney Goggins, University of Minnesota law student and WATCH volunteer

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals. 

 

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A Global Look at COVID-19 and Domestic Violence

covid-19
Photo credit: CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

The Advocates is taking action to respond to increased domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit our social media about the impact of COVID-19 on domestic violence in countries around the world. 

Across the world, agencies are seeing an uptick in domestic violence cases as stay-at-home and limited movement orders have been put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some countries report a decrease in domestic violence calls to hotlines, advocates warn that this is more than likely due to victims/survivors being unable to safely make a phone call while living with their abuser. In response, hotlines around the world have implemented text and email hotline services that help victims be more discrete when attempting to access help.

Many shelters have been named “essential services,” especially in the United States, and this has allowed shelters to maintain operation of their in-person services, although these shelters are quickly becoming overcrowded. Advocates also warn that the pandemic may cause less people to seek these services due to the fear of contracting the virus. In addition, when victims are at home with their abusers, it may be more difficult for them to leave. It may also be more difficult to obtain legal services during this time, although many courts have moved proceedings online and have extended certain stipulations in order to protect victims and their children.

Although there have been efforts across the globe to address the increased risk that victims of domestic violence are now facing, gaps remain. Advocates around the world, as well governments and inter-governmental bodies like the United Nations, have led discussions on the alleviation of these barriers.

 Current state of affairs and principal concerns

Advocates around the world warn that shelter-at-home executive orders, sometimes called “safe at home” orders, will produce unintended and lethal consequences for domestic violence survivors, including:

  • Increased violence due to various aggravating factors, such as economic constraints, job loss, increased alcohol consumption and drug use, close proximity, children being at home
  • Pandemic-related abuse, such as:
    • Threatening to put victims on the street if they show symptoms
    • Making victims wash their hands until they bleed
    • Hiding essential items like hand sanitizer and soap from the victim
    • Threatening to cancel insurance
    • Circulating misinformation to victims to cause fear and deter them from leaving or seeking help;
  • Increased isolation from support systems, such as friends or family;
  • Travel restrictions that impact a victim’s escape or safety plan, or where it may not be safe for them to use public transportation or fly;
  • Decreased or eliminated access to safe havens like school, work, and community gatherings;
  • Difficulty accessing services, because of an:
    • Increased monitoring of phone activity by abusers
    • Inability to make hotline calls safely with abuser home
    • Decreased opportunities to escape
    • Decreased shelter space or shelters repurposed by the government to service COVID-19 patients
    • Fear of contracting the virus at shelters
    • Hotlines overwhelmed by increase in calls
    • Health systems that are overwhelmed by the pandemic, making it more difficult for survivors to access medical services, including therapy;
  • Increased anxiety and re-traumatization;
  • Homelessness;
  • Mental health consequences;
  • Decreased financial resources for victims to flee and support themselves due to job loss;
  • Decrease in family court approvals of requests for hearings;
  • Petitions not determined to be emergencies being dismissed or adjourned to a later date. These decisions may be made by someone in the court system screening electronically filed petitions, which could be life-or-death decisions for survivors;
  • Impacts on health workers, many of whom are women;
  • Reduced or limited access to vital sexual and reproductive health services, including for women subjected to violence.

What to do if you need help 

If you are in immediate danger in the U.S., call 911.

For help in Minnesota, call DayOne Hotline at 1-866-223-1111 or text 612-399-9995.

For help in the U.S., call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE(7233) or text LOVEIS to 22522. American Indians and Alaska Natives can also call the StrongHearts Native Helpline at 1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483).

What The Advocates is doing to strengthen protections for women

The Advocates is currently collaborating with Violence Free MinnesotaMNCASA, and Standpoint to gather information about the challenges faced by Minnesota’s justice system in responding to domestic violence and sexual assault.

The Advocates is conducting fact-finding with systems actors to provide ongoing analyses of the issues and new challenges that systems actors and courts face under the COVID-19 situation that it can provide to Violence Free Minnesota, MNCASA, and Standpoint as they develop real-time guidance to strengthen systems’ responses.

This week, The Advocates will begin posting daily with COVID-19 response information for countries around the world.  Follow @TheAdvocatesforHumanRights on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn) for daily COVID-19 updates for countries around the world.

For more information on violence against women, visit our website StopVAW.org.

Supporting Victims/Survivors of Domestic Violence during the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Pandemic

As the coronavirus spreads throughout the U.S., and across the globe, more and more people are being ordered to stay home. Yet, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “home” is the “most dangerous place for women.”1 For victims/survivors of domestic violence, the ability to leave home to go to safe, public places, such as school or the workplace, is a critical protective measure. So, too, is a victim/survivor’s ability to access the courts to obtain emergency protection and relief.  

On March 13, 2020, Governor Walz declared a peacetime emergency, which imposed restrictions of a wide range of public activities.2 And on March 25, 2020, Governor Walz issued a stay-at-home order effective midnight Friday, March 27 until April 10, 2020. The state’s district and appellate courts remain open, but have limited their operations. As essential safety services, domestic violence programs also remain open. If you are experiencing violence, please call Minnesota’s 24/7 crisis hotline at 866.223.1111 or text 612.399.9995. [Text Wrapping Break] 

“COVID-19: Court Changes for…OFP Cases During the Pandemic”* 

Education for Justice (Law HelpMN) & the MN Judicial Branch 

*modified and condensed from original version 

What has changed? On March 16, 2020, the courts  split case types up into different groups. A “High Priority” group of cases will continue as normal. The rest of cases are suspended for 14 days. 

What are “High Priority” cases? Cases that involve your safety are “High Priority.” All court cases related to domestic violence are in the “High Priority” category. You can see the full list here: http://www.mncourts.gov/mncourtsgov/media/CIOMediaLibrary/Limited-Court-Service-Case-Priorities-List-with-Definitions.pdf  

As of March 23, 2020, the parties and attorneys to an OFP case may appear remotely.3 

If you have exhibits, you should ask the judicial officer how best you can present those exhibits if appearing remotely.  

Can I still file for a restraining order or order for protection? Yes. You can still file a case for restraining orders or orders for protection. Your county might have different rules about how to come to court for this.  

If you feel unsafe, call an advocate. A domestic violence advocate who knows the process and can support you through all of the steps. Violence Free Minnesota has a statewide online directory of advocacy agencies. You can also call their 24-hour crisis line at (866).223.1111. 

You can also call your Legal Aid office. Find your Legal Aid office here: https://www.lawhelpmn.org/providers-and-clinics. You can also apply for help from Legal Aid online: www.justice4mn.org. In-person clinics are probably canceled during the COVID-19 outbreak.   

For more information, check out the following resources: 

https://www.lawhelpmn.org/self-help-library/fact-sheet/covid-19-court-changes-housing-family-and-ofp-cases-during-pandemic

http://www.mncourts.gov/Help-Topics/Domestic-Abuse-and-Harassment.aspx#GetOFP

https://www.vfmn.org/

http://www.mnlegalservices.org/

How do I file for a restraining order or order for protection if I don’t want to leave my house? Use Minnesota Guide & File to create the forms you need to Ask for a MN Restraining Order – either an Order for Protection or Harassment Restraining Order. You can file the forms electronically (eFile) through Guide & File, or print your completed forms. For more information, visit the Guide & File Help Topic on the MN Judicial Branch Website. Your county might have different rules for whether or not you can file by paper, so call the court to confirm (For Hennepin County District Court, call (612).348.6000​). Other counties’ numbers include:  

Ramsey County: (651) 266- 5130 

Washington County: (651) 430-6261  (Family Court) 

Stearns County: (320) 656-3880 (Victim Assistance Coordinators) 

Criminal Justice System Responses to COVID-19 

Minnesota’s criminal justice and legal systems are attempting to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak by issuing new guidelines to prevent/reduce the transmission of the virus.  

How does this affect victims/survivors of domestic violence? According to the MN Department of Corrections: 

“Under the new guidance, if an offender violates the terms of his/her release, supervision agents and hearing officers are being asked to assess the level of danger posed by the violation before revoking the client’s probation/parole and taking the client into custody. Overall, agents and hearing officers are being asked to be as conservative as possible when it comes to taking violators into custody. 

However, if the violation or new crime provides evidence that the individual poses a credible threat to an individual victim or to the general public, agents can bring someone into custody and/or request a hearing through the Hearings and Release Unit.”  

What if my abuser is currently in state prison? Will he/she be released now? Most likely not. The MN Department of Corrections noted: 

The MN DOC is not talking about releasing incarcerated individuals to reduce prison populations at this time; rather, they are focused on reducing the numbers of individuals coming in for low-level violations and crimes, and possible early release of some inmates whose release dates are less than 120 days and who have approved release plans in place. (Of the ~130 individuals being considered for this modified work release with increased levels of contact with DOC staff, all are individuals who are considered low-risk based on the DOC’s scoring assessments.)” 

Will this affect whether I am notified through VINE or MN DOC system of my abuser’s release? No. Nothing has changed in regards to victim notification; it still depends entirely on whether or not victims have registered for notification in the MN DOC system (https://mn.gov/doc/assets/VICTIM_NOTIFICATION_REQUEST_FORM_2015_tcm1089-276323.pdf). It is critical to understand how notification operates, and that VINE (county jail) registration does not transfer to HAVEN (MN DOC/state prison) registration. 

For more information, check out the following resources: 

https://mn.gov/doc/

https://mn.gov/doc/family-visitor/search-offenders-fugitives/

https://www.vinelink.com/#/home

By Rosalyn Park, Women’s Human Rights Program Director at The Advocates For Human Rights

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Following Harvey Weinstein’s Sentencing, the message to the Rest of the World’s Prosecutors: “Just Try It!”

Women’s human rights defenders are celebrating an overdue breakthrough in prosecuting sexual assault and harassment. Former film producer Harvey Weinstein was sentenced in New York to 23 years in prison on Wednesday, March 11 for his two sexual assault convictions.  He faces additional charges in Los Angeles.  Many who work against sexual violence see a clear message to criminal justice professionals:  Just try it!

The criminal laws are only as good as the professionals who enforce them.  Human rights defenders around the world, including The Advocates for Human Rights, commonly report that criminal sexual assault laws are not implemented to hold offenders accountable.  If police and prosecutors do not investigate, charge, and go to trial in sexual assault cases, then the existence of well-written laws have little effect in the community.  Of course sexual assault perpetrators often victimize repeatedly with multiple victims.  They are free to do so with impunity so long as justice professionals find reasons not to enforce the law.

But the Harvey Weinstein case serves to demonstrate what can happen when police and prosecutors do their best work to enforce sexual assault laws.  Weinstein was convicted of both acts of sexual assault he was charged with committing.  He was convicted of forcing oral sexual contact with Mimi Haleyi in 2006, and of raping then aspiring actress Jessica Mann, in 2013.  He was acquitted of three other higher-penalty charges involving those same events, but the jury found him guilty of committing the 2006 and 2013 crimes.  In short, the jury believed the two women Weinstein was charged with victimizing.

The prosecutors going into the Weinstein trial had no guarantee the jury would convict him.  They had multiple challenges to overcome and no physical or biological evidence of sexual encounters.  The prosecution was almost entirely based on the testimony of women describing acts that occurred years ago.   Haleyi and Mann, and others who also testified about Weinstein’s sexual attacks, continued to communicate with and meet with Weinstein.  They continued to be friendly to him and, in Mann’s case, even saying that she loved him.  They did not report the crimes to the police at the time.  Yet, with their testimony, along with other survivor testimony, the jury found proof beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt. 

The Weinstein verdicts support the notion that community members -serving as jurors – are ready to hold sexual assault perpetrators accountable.  It won’t happen every time; prosecutors must have sufficiently thick skin to weather a few not-guilty verdicts.  But, when it comes to enforcing the sexual assault laws, if not now, when?  If not today’s prosecutors, then who?  The age-old excuse that “a jury will never convict him” is beginning to evaporate.  So, the only way to move forward is for police and prosecutors to do their best work and just try it. 

By Kaarin Long, Staff Attorney at The Advocates for Human Rights and former sex-crimes prosecutor