Graphic via Tania Lili for Keystone
Graphic via Tania Lili for Keystone

Although the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically altered life as we know it—including closing courts to the public—it is still possible to get help: virtually.

At a time in which isolation is key and even going to the grocery store requires preparation, domestic violence survivors face an unprecedented barrier to removing themselves from an abuser. 

Although domestic violence calls have not increased during quarantine, advocates believe that incidents of domestic violence are on the rise as people face being trapped with their abuser for an indefinite amount of time with limited or no access to time alone during which they can reach out for help. 

Typically, a person looking for protection from an abuser or stalker has the option to file for a civil domestic violence protective order, which is a legal tool that forbids the respondent from contacting the person who requested the order. Although the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically altered life as we know it—including closing courts to the public—it is still possible to get help. Cities across the country, including Philadelphia, are issuing restraining orders virtually, while in-person emergency services now have extended hours. 

In the United States, more than one in three women and one in four men are estimated to have been stalked, experienced physical violence, and/or raped by an intimate partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline

“Although COVID-19 has upended so much of life as we knew it, it has not stopped domestic violence,” said Molly Callahan, Esq., legal center director at Women Against Abuse. “Victim services, the courts, and police understand that domestic violence is still occurring and that it’s exacerbated by COVID-19, so we need to be more flexible and more creative about how we assist victims.” 

Callahan worries, however, that survivors are unaware that these services are still available. “We have not seen an increase [in survivors reaching out] and we worry that it is because victims may not know that we are open,” she said. “Abusers isolate victims from family and friends and use misinformation to discourage victims from accessing social services.” 

For example, Callahan explained, some abusers have lied to their partners and told them that if they leave the house, they cannot come back in, or that the courts or police are not available to help. 

Meanwhile, other survivors may be choosing to endure violence at home because they are worried about their finances, childcare issues, and health risks, she continued. “COVID-19 and social distancing exacerbates all of that.”  

“Once the immediate crisis is over and stay-at-home orders are lifted,” Callahan added, “we may see a flood of calls.”

Law enforcement is still readily available to help survivors of domestic violence: Even during something as disruptive as a global pandemic, people experiencing domestic violence can file for a civil protective order anytime. 

Before COVID-19, a person could file for a DVPO at the courthouse or, for incidents that occurred on nights and weekends, at the emergency filing site. Under normal circumstances, the emergency site is reserved for when the petitioner is in danger and cannot wait until the courts are open again. 

As the pandemic continues, there are currently two ways to petition the courts for a DVPO: virtually through phone or email and in-person at the emergency filing site, found at the Stout Criminal Justice Center. “In Philadelphia, there is 24-hour access to filing—the emergency filing site is open weekends and 21 hours a day Monday to Friday, any time that remote filing is not a possibility,” Callahan said. 

If a survivor of abuse doesn’t want to petition for a DVPO in person, they can call the Philadelphia Family Court domestic violence filing unit on weekday mornings between 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. After being interviewed by an employee of the court, a petition will be drafted and sent to the petitioner via email ready for them to sign. Petitions are also available on Women Against Abuse’s website, and can be filled out and emailed to the court. 

A person may file in-person if they are, among other reasons, unable to find privacy at home from their abuser to contact the courts. “From a public health perspective, it is safer for petitioners, court staff, and the public for any filings to be completed remotely, but, because victims may be trapped in their homes with the abuser, it is safer for some petitioners to go to the emergency filing site, and so the court set up processes for both types of filing,” Callahan said. If a person chooses to file at the emergency center, the order will be provided by a magistrate and, the next time courts are open, a judge will review the temporary emergency restraining order and may change it if they believe the protections provided should be different. 

Susan Pearlstein, co-supervisor of the family law unit of Philadelphia Legal Assistance, explains that typically the emergency sites would help people who can’t wait for the next business day to file and have experienced an incident in the past 24 hours. However, due to it being the only in-person option at the moment, those rules have been relaxed slightly. 

Once a petition is filed, a hearing for the temporary order will be conducted over video or the phone (with interpreters available to be conferenced in) for the petitioner to make their case for why they need the order. Once a judge signs off on the order, the petitioner can have it mailed to their home or pick it up outside the courthouse between 4 PM and 5 PM from a sheriff.

“The emergency site has been one of the few places that is open,” Callahan said. “We know some petitioners are filing remotely from their cars or outside of their house but that is not a possibility for everyone. And, of course, all of the places we might normally tell a victim to go are either closed or may not be safe, such as a hospital waiting room—so having access to that site is crucial.” 

The process of alerting the respondent has also seen a radical change since quarantine began. “If petitioners have filed at family court, the sheriffs will serve the order on the defendant,” Callahan said. “Usually, petitioners take their orders to the police to have [them] serve the defendant. Because of safety issues with COVID-19, temporarily, sheriffs are automatically serving orders and petitions filed at Family Court so that petitioners do not have to travel to the police.”

All restraining orders are temporary until a hearing is held, and a permanent one is issued by a judge. While this would typically happen within 10 days of first filing for the order, Pennsylvania courts are currently not holding any hearings, so the temporary DVPOs will not expire until the petitioner is able to appear in court. The orders each come with different terms based on the individual situations. If you wanted eviction or custody of your kids, traditionally you would be back in court within two weeks and can request it. Now these terms are staying in place until the courts reopen.

The process can be confusing enough under normal circumstances, especially as most people filing for a restraining order do so without representation, Pearlstein said. While there’s typically a paralegal stationed at the courthouse to answer any questions about the filing process, petitioners can also call hotlines, such as one offered by the Philadelphia Legal Assistance to ask questions and get information. 

Although Philadelphia is waiting to hold hearings on long-term restraining orders—which can last up to three years—until courts reopen, the city may have to find a way to move forward in order to help petitioners get the help they need, Pearlstein said. 

“Right now if you don’t get eviction in your temporary order, your options for where you’re going to go may be extremely limited,” she said. “If you’re indigent and you don’t have a credit card and you can’t afford to go to a hotel, obviously you’re going to have to rely on shelters or friends and family. Lots of friends and family might be concerned about bringing new people into their home right now, they might not have the space, they might not be able to do it.” 

As shelters navigate how to bring new people in without putting current residents at risk of contracting the coronavirus, and high-risk individuals weigh the danger of moving into one, petitioners are being put in an incredibly hard position with no end in sight. 

“It is always extremely difficult and dangerous to leave an abusive relationship,” Callahan said, “and the pandemic exacerbates those dangers and difficulties.” 

The decision to make restraining orders available virtually came from the desire to protect everyone involved in their filing. “The court created a process for remote filing because of the health risks to petitioners, court staff and judges, and the importance of slowing the spread of COVID-19,” Callahan said. “The court has been extremely responsive to concerns about access and the safety of domestic violence victims, while balancing the risks from COVID-19.”

Unfortunately, many of the safety planning tools that are available for domestic violence victims, including staying with a friend or family member and calling for help from work, are not available right now because of the shutdowns associated with COVID-19, Callahan said.

That’s why Women Against Abuse has created a safety plan for anyone facing domestic violence during COVID-19. Although the resources included in the plan are local to Philadelphia, the information can be utilized by anyone experiencing abuse at home during the pandemic. 

The Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-866-SAFE-014. 

The Domestic Violence Unit at 215-686-6311, ext. 19217 Monday through Friday from 8:30 AM to 11 a.m. 

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233 and to chat online at thehotline.org

The Philadelphia Legal Assistance’s Family Law Hotline can be reached at 215-981-3838 for help Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m.