News - McHenry County

COVID-19 stay-at-home order causes a spike in protection orders filed by domestic abuse victims, but a decrease in overall crime

Stay-at-home order causes a spike in protection orders filed by domestic abuse victims

Jane Farmer, executive director of Turning Point, speaks Oct. 3, 2018, at the podium surrounded by purple balloons during a candlelight vigil put on by Turning Point, Mather's Clinic and the Child's Advocacy Center to raise awareness for the problem of domestic violence at the historic Woodstock Square in Woodstock.

A recent increase in the number of orders of protection filed at the McHenry County Courthouse seems to correlate with the COVID-19 stay-at-home order put in place by Gov. JB Pritzker on March 21, Turning Point Executive Director Jane Farmer said.

“If [couples] haven’t been getting along anyway and then you lock them down and put them in a house or an apartment by themselves, it’s just prime for people to be abusing others,” Farmer said.

Turning Point of McHenry County operates an emergency shelter for domestic abuse victims in Woodstock and offers legal advocacy and counseling services for families. Ever since the state went on lockdown, Farmer said her organization has seen the result of rising tensions in households.

“It is happening at the courthouse. They’re getting more orders of protection,” Farmer said. “So I think once things start getting back to normal, we are going to see a huge increase in both shelter clients and walk-in clients.”

Several petitions for orders of protection filed since March 21 specifically reference COVID-19 or the resulting shelter-in-place order, court records show.

From a prosecutorial standpoint, the number of domestic battery charges filed has seemingly decreased, McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said.

The average number of domestic battery charges filed in McHenry County dropped from 1.3 a day between Feb. 3 and March 20 to 0.9 a day between March 21 and April 7, Kenneally said.

“The figures related to domestic battery may change as the economic and other pressures related to COVID-19 fallout continue to build,” Kenneally said. “I would urge anyone who is facing domestic violence to reach out for help as all the resources and services remain in place, including Turning Point, Mental Health Board, Substance Abuse Coalition, McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office and local police.”

The number of new clients seeking help from Turning Point also has gone down, which Farmer said could mean that the stay-at-home order is causing an increase in domestic violence but that victims feel less empowered to get help.

“People can call and talk to an advocate, but I’ve seen a lot less calls and clients coming in,” she said. “I’m afraid that [victims] are being told that they can’t get any help, that the agency is closed, which it’s not.”

Turning Point is open for walk-in consultations from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays, Farmer said. The emergency shelter is open 24/7, and Turning Point's main phone is monitored constantly.

“If [someone] needs a place because they’re afraid to stay where they’re at, then they can call our regular number at 815-338-8081 and they’ll get a live person 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.

Anyone who is in immediate danger of violence or abuse should call 9-1-1 right away, Farmer said. People also can seek help through Turning Point’s website, which now is equipped with an “escape button” that, if pressed, will clear the computer’s browser and search history immediately.

“If a person is on [their] home computer and then maybe the abuser walks in the room, [they] can just get out of the situation immediately,” Farmer said.

Turning Point also has an office at the courthouse where staff are trained to help domestic abuse victims in filing for orders of protection. Since the courthouse became closed to the public March 18, Turning Point’s legal advocates no longer are allowed to appear in court as they have been deemed nonessential personnel, Farmer said.

Local attorney Jeannie Ridings said not having Turning Point advocates in the courtroom poses a real problem.

“That combined with the fact that we anticipate orders of protection increasing due to just the stress and anxiety of home-sheltering and people being on top of each other all the time, there’s a potential for a serious problem,” she said.

Ridings and fellow attorney Elizabeth Vonau are both partners at KRV Legal in Crystal Lake, and both specialize in orders of protection and family law.

They are part of a team of attorneys who, in the midst of the pandemic, are volunteering their time at the courthouse to ensure that orders of protection are filed and processed properly, Vonau said.

“It’s a more desperate time right now,” Vonau said. “So if we, as attorneys, don’t step up to do the right thing, there is no one else there to do it.”

Filing, processing and maintaining an order of protection can be confusing, and many domestic violence victims must do so without the assistance of an attorney, Ridings said.

Vonau said she has seen about three to five people appear in court for orders of protection every day. She and the rest of the team are coordinating with Turning Point and working in shifts to provide legal assistance where it is most needed, she said.

“Seeking justice for all is not just a popular tagline,” Vonau said. “It is a very meaningful goal which requires everyone to work together, to do the right thing, to show up even when it’s hard and together we can provide justice to our community.”

Prosecutors have also experienced a more pronounced drop off of felony charges. Between Feb. 3 and March 20, the state’s attorney’s office averaged 3.5 felonies per day. That’s 50% more than the 1.7 felony charges filed between March 21 and April 7.

Reduced person-to-person contact is likely the cause of an overall decline in criminal felonies, Kenneally said, noting that another explanation could lie in local police agencies’ responses to COVID-19.

In an attempt to slow the spread of the disease and protect officers, many departments have shifted their operations to focus more on “essential peacekeeping and community caretaking” and less on “investigative functions” Kenneally said.

“The reductions in felonies I think is most likely explained by the fact that those who would otherwise be committing crimes are, like everyone else, staying home to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19 and the fact that since far less people are in public, bars are closed, and with less human to human transactions [and] contact, there is less opportunity to commit crime,” Kenneally said.

Police agencies throughout the county have become more selective about which calls they’ll handle in person in the age of COVID-19. The Woodstock Police Department recently launched an online reporting system where residents can file reports for non-emergency and not-in-progress issues. Officers will continue to respond to “life and safety” matters including domestic violence and crimes in progress.

“This simple online system gives you the ability to submit reports to our department at your convenience and from the comfort of your own home,” Woodstock Police Chief John Lieb said in a news release. “During the current times, this option also helps us keep you and our officers safer from catching or spreading COVID-19.”

Katie Smith

Katie Smith

Katie reported on the crime and courts beat for the Northwest Herald from 2017 through 2021. She began her career with Shaw Media in 2015 at the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, where she reported on the courts, city council, the local school board, and business.