COVID-19 Resources

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE DURING COVID-19 – UNFORTUNATELY, THE FAVORABLE STATISTICS DO NOT REFLECT REALITY

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is deeply concerned with the decline of reported domestic violence incidents and related arrests during the mid-March through mid-April 2020 period, compared with similar statistics compiled during 2019. In a Virtual Town Hall Meeting on April 22nd entitled Services for Victims and Survivors of domestic and sexual violence, statistics were presented showing a disturbing decrease in the reporting of domestic violence incidents and arrests during the pandemic.

The Center For Hope And Safety in Bergen County, a not-for-profit agency dedicated to assisting victims of domestic violence and their children, similarly reports no increase in the number of victims seeking its comprehensive services since Governor Murphy’s “Stay At Home” Executive Order was implemented on March 21st. Rather than suggesting that the number of incidents are truly reduced, there is a widespread belief that such is not the case, and that the only downtrend is in the reporting of these incidents. Victims must continue to be made aware that there are shelters throughout the State currently providing remote advocacy and counseling services. Safe houses remain available in which all appropriate precautions have been taken to provide a secure and Covid-free environment. These shelters will accept all victims notwithstanding their financial status.

The necessary “stay at home” restrictions imposed by the Governor have created an ideal situation for the abuse of intimate partners and children to flourish. Overwhelming fear, stemming from isolation and lack of privacy, is inhibiting victims from contacting local police to report incidents of abuse. Victims believe that they have no place to go since social distancing protocols must be observed. Many of these impacted individuals do not have the financial resources to find alternate shelter. Ironically, victims also refrain from reporting abuse out of a misplaced empathy for an abuser who also must find alternate shelter after being removed from the family residence.

Despite the disruption in many judicial proceedings due to the pandemic, the Courts have prioritized domestic violence cases and remain open to conduct proceedings, without delay, under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:25-28, the victim/plaintiff is permitted to contact the local police to report an incident of domestic violence. The local municipal court judge will hear testimony remotely and may enter an Ex Parte Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) when necessary to protect the life, health or well-being of the plaintiff and if applicable, the children of the plaintiff and even the family pets. The TRO remains in effect until a Superior Court Judge of the Family Part of the applicable county issues a further order. Emergency relief may include forbidding the accused/defendant from returning to the scene of the domestic violence and ordering the surrender of any firearm or other weapon. The defendant is generally permitted to return to the scene of the domestic violence to pick up personal belongings when accompanied by a police officer.

The TRO is served upon the defendant by the police and is sent to the local chief of police, members of the State Police and any other appropriate law enforcement agency or court. In accordance with N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29, the final hearing on the TRO shall be held in the Family Part within 10 days of the filing of the complaint. At the hearing, the standard for proving the allegations in the complaint shall be by a preponderance of the evidence.

If a Final Restraining Order (FRO) is granted, the Court has broad discretion under N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29 to impose multiple forms of relief. The plaintiff may be granted exclusive possession of the residence regardless of whether it is jointly or solely owned or leased by the parties. Alternatively, a defendant may be ordered to pay the plaintiff’s rent at a residence other than the one previously shared if the plaintiff requires alternative housing. If applicable, the FRO may allow the defendant parenting time for the children, which may be supervised. It also may require an evaluation to determine the risk of harm to the children prior to the entry of parenting time provisions and further direct the defendant to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

The FRO also may require the defendant to pay the plaintiff monetary compensation for losses suffered as a direct result of the act of domestic violence. Compensatory losses include, but are not limited to, loss of earnings or other support (child/spousal), out-of-pocket losses for injuries sustained, cost of counseling for the plaintiff, reasonable attorney’s fees, court costs, compensation for pain and suffering, and punitive damages. This is not an exhaustive list of remedies within the Court’s authority but provides a perspective of the intent of the law to protect victims of domestic violence.

In addition to the relief provided by the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, victims may also seek criminal remedies against the abuser. Criminal complaints are frequently initiated by law enforcement officials upon arriving at the scene of the domestic violence or when speaking with the victim who appears at the local police station. Attorney General Grewal also cautioned participants in the Virtual Town Hall Meeting that all TROs and FROs must continue to be enforced. The “stay-at-home” Executive Orders are not a “green light” for abusers to return to the family residence.

If a TRO is entered, the plaintiff and the defendant also have the option to negotiate a consent order in which they enter into mutual civil restraints, often resulting in one of the parties leaving the family residence. A consent order may provide, for example, for reciprocal prohibitions against harassment, stalking, and contact with employers and relatives. Additionally, an order may include interim support obligations, custodial/parenting time provisions, and arrangements for pick-up of a party’s belongings. It is not often possible to reach agreement on all of these issues under a consent order. However, the issues that are resolved would be memorialized in the consent order. The plaintiff, after speaking remotely with a domestic violence counselor available at the court, would then dismiss the TRO in a virtual appearance before the assigned judge but would not be barred from filing another TRO if a subsequent act of domestic violence occurs.

Although this article places emphasis on the plight of the victim of domestic violence, we do not ignore the fact that the Prevention of Violence Act unfortunately can be misutilized as a “sword” to obtain an advantage in divorce proceedings. This is an abuse of the Act and undermines its very purpose.

The continued “stay-at-home” restrictions undoubtedly create increased tensions within a household. The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development issued a press release on April 23rd announcing that 140,139 new unemployment claims were filed that week, bringing the total to 858,000 claims filed and 556,000 processed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Unemployment, or the prospect of losing one’s job, can place severe economic strains upon the family. Even employed parents, who are working remotely, are dealing with the additional pressures of educating and otherwise assisting their children, some of whom have special needs. This environment is ripe for acts of domestic violence to occur. Thus, the downward trend of the reporting of these incidents as announced by Attorney General Grewal is both surprising and, most likely, a function of under-reporting, rather than the result of fewer incidents.

First and foremost, if you are a victim of domestic violence, call your local police. They will guide you through the steps of filing a TRO. You also should contact the various domestic violence hotlines that will provide counseling and connect you with organizations that will offer shelter for you and your children.

It is most prudent when dealing with issues of domestic violence for parties to obtain legal counsel. The Family Law Practice Group at Price, Meese, Shulman & D’Arminio, P.C. has provided legal assistance to parties involved in domestic violence disputes since the inception of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. We remain dedicated to serve your needs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cathy J. Pollak is the Family Law Partner at Price, Meese, Shulman & D’Arminio, P.C. and is a Member of the Board of Directors of the Center For Hope And Safety in Bergen County. She can be reached at cpollak@pricemeese.com or (201) 391-3737.