By Hannah Guzik
When Elizabeth Eastlund looks at her numbers for this year, something stands out. Normally, by mid-May, the Los Angeles domestic violence shelter she runs would have filed about half a dozen restraining orders on behalf of victims.
“We haven’t filed one restraining order this year,” Eastlund, Rainbow Services’ executive director said May 15. “None have been requested.”
For Eastlund, the drop in restraining orders is a sign that the Trump Administration is already having an impact on domestic violence victims in California. Interpersonal assault victims, who already faced stigma and a culture that often blames them for their assault, now must contend with a president who himself has been accused of sexual assault. Further, President Donald Trump’s immigration policies have left many California victims who are undocumented afraid to even step foot in a courthouse or police station, for fear that they may be deported.
“While the numbers are small, that’s a sign that people aren’t necessarily trusting of the system and are scared to come forward and go to a courthouse,” Eastlund said of the decrease in restraining orders. “It’s kind of alarming.”
Last year, the nonprofit, which primarily helps Latino victims, filed 12 restraining orders for clients, and in 2015, the number was 16. “This is the longest period of time in which we have not filed a restraining order since the beginning of our legal program,” which started nearly a decade ago, Eastlund said.
While data is not yet available on whether domestic violence rates have increased this year in California, victim’s advocates say they are working overtime to try to counter any negative influence from Washington, protect those who seek help and preserve their funding streams.
“We’re at this point where we’re vigilant—we’re being ever vigilant—about what’s happening at the federal level,” said Jacquie Marroquin, director of programs for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, a statewide coalition of victim’s services organizations.
“It’s unprecedented. It’s not something that we really expected to be doing in 2017, and yet here we are.”
Police Calls Decrease in L.A.
The California Partnership hasn’t compiled a statewide report on domestic violence calls to police yet for 2017, because it is only May, Marroquin said. However, a few of the more local metrics that are available are troubling, she said.
The Los Angeles Police Department reported in mid-March that significantly fewer Latino residents reported rape or spousal abuse in the first three and a half months of this year, compared to the same time period last year. The agency has seen a 10 percent decline in spousal abuse reports and 25 percent decline in rape reports among Hispanic populations. But the agency doesn’t believe the decline in reports actually correlates to a drop in crime.
“While there is no direct evidence that the decline is related to concerns within the Hispanic community regarding immigration, the Department believes deportation fears may be preventing Hispanic members of the community from reporting when they are victimized,” the LAPD said in a release.
While reports of domestic violence are down in Los Angeles, Rainbow Services’ emergency and transitional shelters have remained full, Eastlund said. The lack of affordable housing in Los Angeles is a contributing factor, she said.
The nonprofit fields “constant calls about what will happen” with their families’ immigration status if they report domestic violence to authorities, for example, Eastlund said.
Rainbow Services continues to help clients apply for U visas, which provide immigration protections for some crime victims, including domestic violence victims, who cooperate with an investigation or prosecution. Eastlund said there was “a mad rush between Dec. 8 and Jan. 20,” the dates between when Trump was elected and took office, “to submit as many (U visas) as possible” in case the policy was eliminated. So far that has not been the case.
Trump refutes the sexual assault claims, but whether they are true or not, they may have had a chilling effect on victims, said Shannon Minor, a domestic violence survivor who volunteers at Rainbow Services.
Minor, a 33-year-old Torrance mother who escaped an abusive relationship in 2011, said the American Health Care Act, which the House of Representatives approved earlier this month, also threatens victims. As passed, the act would make victims vulnerable to being labeled with a pre-existing health condition, which could make it difficult for them to obtain health insurance.
“Now what’s it going to be like for men or women who want to speak out about being abused or sexually assaulted—what’s going to happen to our protections?” Minor asked.
Will Funding Remain?
California received nearly $38 million in federal funding for domestic violence programs under the Violence Against Women Act in fiscal year 2016. Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 does not directly target the VAWA funding, but a suggested cut of about 3.8 percent to the Department of Justice budget could result in less money for domestic violence programs.
California advocates remain vigilant, because Congress will need to reauthorize VAWA in 2018. Another source of federal funding, the Family Violence Prevention & Services Act, expired in 2015 and is overdue for authorization, according to the California Partnership.
“Reauthorization is separate from funding, and Congress can and does fund expired programs,” and the Family Violence act has continued to receive funding so far, said Jessica Merrill, communications and development manager for the California Partnership.
California is in a better position than many states because it receives significant funding from the state’s general fund. This fiscal year, the state allocated $20.6 million for domestic violence programs. Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget for the following fiscal year, which begins July 1, keeps the funding stable.
‘What we can do on the local level’
While they keep one eye on Washington, domestic violence advocates have the other focused on California, and what they can do now to help victims.
A shelter in Butte County, a rural Northern California county with a sizable population of undocumented farmworkers, recently placed a notice in English and Spanish on its website to try to assuage any fears immigrants may have about reporting abuse, executive director Anastacia Snyder said.
“In these uncertain times for immigrant families, Catalyst Domestic Violence Services wants you to know that we are committed to providing ALL of our services for domestic violence survivors and their children, regardless of immigration status,” the message reads. “Your immigration status should not be a barrier for receiving services.”
The nonprofit goes on to assert that it will not ask victims for “an ID or a social security number.”
In Los Angeles, Eastlund, who is also co-chair of the city’s Domestic Violence Task Force, is setting up a meeting with the Mayor’s Office, LAPD and the City Attorney’s Office to discuss how they can work together while still keeping immigrants safe.
“I think there’s a lot of unknowns, and we have to remain hopeful and look at what we can do on the local level to ensure that the voice of survivors is heard,” she said.