As the pandemic lingers, domestic violence rises in King County

SEATTLE — Cases of domestic violence are on the rise again in King County and leaders blame the pandemic. After rising sharply in March and April, then dipping from May through July, felony cases of domestic violence are on the upswing.

“There’s always been kind of a pandemic of domestic violence going and now we have a pandemic within a pandemic,” said David Martin, who runs the domestic violence unit for the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

For some people, staying home has put them in danger. Domestic abuse survivor Aileen Sison escaped her abusive boyfriend and sympathizes with others.

“How terrifying it is to be forced to stay in with someone,” Sison told KIRO 7.

Access to guns, in troubled relationships, is becoming increasingly lethal during the pandemic.

“We’ve had 24 homicides directly related to domestic violence offenders and it’s deeply troubling. When a firearm is present in a domestic violence scenario, the risk of death increases by 500%,” said Martin.

Senior Deputy Prosecutor David Martin knows something about domestic violence, because he has lived it.

“I grew up in a home with domestic violence and that was my dad. I remember police coming to my house and nothing happening and times have change, I think, for the better. There has been a much stronger response. When I was growing up, it wasn’t something you really talked about and it had an enormous impact on me.”

COVID-19 has changed the way attorneys, police and courts deal with domestic violence cases in King County. Prior to the pandemic, those filing for civil protection orders had to appear in a courtroom, before a judge, and sometimes that could take all day. Now, people can file online with the victim appearing virtually.

"I think we have to realize that the former system of having to go in, in person, often multiple times, taking time off work to go downtown to the courthouse or to Kent, put up a lot of barriers for people, said Mary Ellen Stone of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center.

An emergency proclamation, from Gov. Jay Inslee, allows law enforcement to text protection orders to suspects and allows for virtual hearings. Previously, many suspects could not be located and a high-percentage did not show up to court.

“Now, with electronic service, we’re well in excess of 90-percent. People will accept electronic service. They’ll show up for their hearings virtually. There is not as much shame and embarrassment associated with the service,” said Martin.

As the pandemic lingers, those trying to reduce domestic violence in King County are examining whether changes are helping or hurting domestic violence victims.

“It’s something we’re studying. I think the hope is we are able to give people options and those options will lead to greater safety. When you step back from the response to domestic violence, you’re like, wouldn’t it have been great if we were investing as a community in preventing these things from happening in the first place. We’re always so reactive in what we do,” said Martin.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233. If you need help immediately, call or text 911.