Domestic violence rates are a concern in pandemic

On April 18, 22-year-old Diego Alfonso Gonzalez’s girlfriend told him to leave the home the couple shared with her father after an argument.

As the man was packing his belongings, Alton police say the woman’s father began arguing with Gonzalez, provoking him.

That’s when police say Gonzalez brandished a machete and a scuffle ensued between him, the woman’s father and one of that man’s friends.

By the time police gained control of the situation, the father’s friend had part of his ear bitten off and both men had been slashed by the machete.

Gonzalez was booked on charges of aggravated assault with a weapon (family violence) and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Less than a week before this incident, 33-year-old Rene Angel Gonzalez shot his brother in the leg during a domestic disturbance in Alton. He is charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

These are the types of crime Alton Police Chief Jonathan Flores said have been increasing in the city of 17,588 people since Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez issued a shelter-in-place order on March 26 in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the county.

“Our agency has seen a 116% increase in family violence cases from March 26 to date,” Flores said. “There is also an increase in the violent nature of the crimes.”

Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra reported a similar trend in the mostly rural areas his deputies patrol.

“And we are noticing some of the calls are getting more violent,” Guerra said. “So the deputies are aware that when we get those type of calls that they are adequately prepared with additional backup. Those are probably the most dangerous calls we respond to.”

Like in Alton, Guerra said calls for domestic disturbances have increased since the shelter-at-home order. And one has been deadly, a murder-suicide on April 16 that Guerra said is a case of family violence.

“We anticipated (an increase in domestic violence) with the shelter-at-home order that was put out. And you compound the problem with the added stress of kids having to stay home from school all the time and of course not knowing the uncertainties,” Guerra said. “A lot of people are out of work. A lot of financial strain has been put on the families.”

So is there a trend across all of Hidalgo County where calls to law enforcement for domestic disturbances have increased? The short answer is no, and whether these calls have increased appears to have everything to do with where you live.

The Monitor examined jail logs from March 26 to April 24 and tallied up the number of people arrested for crimes like aggravated assault family violence, aggravated assault family impede breath, terrorist threat family violence and continuous family violence, along with which agencies in the county booked the most people on these charges into the county jail.

A total of 113 people have been booked on these charges over this 30-day period with an average of 3.76 people being booked per day. Jail logs also reflect an increase of arrests on weekends.

The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office has made the most arrests, with 33, followed by the McAllen Police Department, which booked 28 people on these charges. Edinburg has booked the third most with 12, followed by Weslaco and Alton, which have both booked eight people.

The newspaper reached out to all of these agencies to ask whether there has been an increase in domestic disturbance/violence calls since March 26 and only the sheriff’s office and Alton are reporting increases.

The Edinburg Police Department created a five-week comparison for the newspaper in response to the inquiry. A crime analyst with the department compared the period between Oct. 1 and Nov. 5, 2019, and found 158 reports for assaults with 78 of those reports being family violence, or 49% of the calls.

Those numbers were compared to the time between March 10 and April 14, where there were 143 reports for assaults with 79 of those reports being family violence, or 44.8% of the calls.

The stats, however, reveal there have been 79 calls for family violence calls during the 2020 five-week period while there were 72 reports during the 2019 date range.

Both Weslaco and McAllen are reporting decreases in response to these types of calls for service.

McAllen Police Department Lt. Joel Morales said calls for service have decreased when compared to the same period for 2019. For instance, the department has received 1,743 fewer calls for service in March 2020 than March 2019, a 15% decrease. When comparing the first 15 days of April 2020 to April 2019, Morales said the department received 1,978 fewer calls for service, a 32% decrease.

“This data point, is an absolute indicator of the COVID-19 virus’ impact on calls for service,” Morales said in the email.

McAllen reported all calls for service, not just domestic disturbance/violence calls, but Morales said the department had not discerned an increase in these types of calls.

As for Weslaco, Public Information Officer Eric Hernandez said the department has seen an 11% decrease in calls for domestic disturbances, with police there receiving a total of 25 calls since March 26 for family violence.

The disparity in where there are increases and decreases is not lost on police executives in Hidalgo County.

“In having our discussions in our executive meetings with our chiefs, we noticed that some jurisdictions are seeing increases and some are not,” Sheriff Guerra said.

When solely looking at crime numbers, it appears that whether there is an increase in domestic violence since the shelter-at-home order simply depends on where you live.

Not so fast, says Cynthia Jones, director of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Office for Victim Advocacy & Violence Prevention, or OVAVP.

“The numbers have to be skyrocketing. The couple of cases we have talked to have been significant. But, in general, most of our clients walk through our door,” Jones said. “If our doors aren’t open, we are accessible. We can go to campus, but the students aren’t on campus so it’s difficult to get the messaging out.”

Jones said multiple news reports indicate domestic violence has been on the increase worldwide since the onset of the pandemic.

But like Weslaco and McAllen, Jones said OVAVP is assisting fewer domestic violence victims on campus.

“Numbers are such a weird thing when you are reporting domestic violence,” Jones said. “Our numbers have plummeted and that’s because most people aren’t leaving the house.”

And when you couple a shelter-in-place order, financial uncertainty and the hallmark of domestic abuse — control — the real truth about domestic violence rates over the last month becomes much murkier, Jones explanied.

“You have no privacy at home,” Jones said, adding that abusers monitor their victims, who are constantly looking over their shoulders. “It doesn’t surprise me that help-seeking behavior with advocates has plummeted and that leaves the only recourse to be law enforcement.”

And a lot of those domestic violence reports don’t come from inside the household, Jones said. Rather, neighbors, friends, family members or someone else reports the abuse to police.

Since the pandemic, Jones said she’s only had two conversations with people in abusive home situations.

“And both reported stressors of the household and coming to campus and going to school was the only time they can leave,” Jones said. “And since they can’t do that they both talked to me on the phone and it was difficult to do that. And I couldn’t call them back. They are more at the mercy of an abuser.”

Jones, who is a survivor of domestic abuse, doesn’t contact the clients by phone to avoid triggering an abuser.

“We know that many of our clients, we’ve lost contact with them. And we’re afraid to try and contact them because we don’t know who is monitoring them because most of our contacts would come to our office,” Jones said. “They don’t have the privacy needed to have a conversation with a victim advocate.”

Priscilla Palacios, the OVAVP program coordinator on the Edinburg campus, explained that there are additional factors that may suppress reporting of domestic violence during the pandemic, including fewer people going to the hospital where, historically, domestic abuse reports are often generated.

“People are not going to the hospital because they are afraid … or the doctor’s office because of the fact they don’t what to put themselves with the virus or have the fear of obtaining the virus, of being contaminated, and passing it on to the family,” Palacios said. “So they are avoiding seeking medical attention.”

Another aspect brings the discussion back to numbers, but not the statistics. Rather, Palacios is talking about the bottom line. The family budget in a time when so many people have been laid off because of the pandemic.

“We’re in a situation where the economy is crappy. The environment around is not great, either. And now these people who are afraid, they can’t go to work. The children are home. Everybody is home,” Palacios said. “If the man who brings the money home or the woman brings the money home (is arrested), how are they going to survive? They are already panicking. If this person is arrested and they are in jail, how are they going to bail them out and have another bill?”

So what should someone do if they are being abused?

Palacios said the most important aspect of leaving an abusive relationship is safety planning.

“Safety plans should be geared toward the situation, and done in the safest and smartest way to get out safely and stay out of the situation so they don’t resort to going back to the abuser,” Palacios said.

More information on safety planning can be found on the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website, www.thehotline.org.

Guerra, the sheriff, said he wanted to remind victims of domestic abuse that there is help.

“Please, of course, contact local law enforcement,” Guerra said. “If you need immediate assistance call 9-1-1.”

Additionally, Guerra encouraged victims of abuse to also contact the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office to apply for a protective order and talk to a victim’s advocate.

Hernandez, the Weslaco Police Department’s public information officer, also wanted to remind the public that his department has a victim’s advocate on staff to help victims of domestic abuse. Weslaco police have medical, counseling and relocation resources available to victims.

As for Alton, a small city that’s seen a drastic 116% increase in domestic violence calls, Flores, its police chief, wants abusers to know his agency is committed to bringing them to justice and that the department is ready to assist those in need of victim services.

“We want to emphasize to victims of family violence or those who know someone who is a victim of family violence to call the police department for assistance,” Flores said. “There are resources available to help remove them from the situation. Our commitment is not only on the enforcement side, but it also to provide our community with the resources that they will need to ensure they are safe long term.”

mreagan@themonitor.com