Like everyone else in New York state, you've been told to stay home due to COVID-19. Non-essential businesses and schools are closed, and even playgrounds have been shut down, as the governor warns people not to crowd into parks. You're isolated from your friends, your extended family, and your co-workers. All of this means you're spending nearly all of your time at home, and if you're in an abusive relationship, you're shut inside with your abuser with nowhere to go. Although the pandemic has changed many things, it has not changed the fact that there is help available for anyone who is in danger from an abuser.
Despite the public health crisis the state is facing, the most important thing is the safety – emotional and physical – of everyone in your family. Crisis services and interventions are still available to you, and there is no reason to postpone protecting yourself (and your children, if you have any) until this is over.
Here are the 5 options that are available to you to get the help you need now:
- Call 911. This should be your first step if you are in a situation in which you are being abused or think you may be abused. The NYPD is there to help you. There are several things to keep in mind when you make this call. First, it's imperative that you be extremely clear about your circumstances and the danger you are in. If you call 911 and say you and your partner have been fighting, the call is going to be a low priority. However, if you call and say that you are afraid for your safety and that you think your partner is going to hurt you, you're afraid for your life, or that your partner has already harmed you, your call will receive a higher priority. The second thing to remember is that NYPD officers have been hit with the virus, so they are not fully staffed, and there may be delays. However, because most people are staying home, crime and traffic accidents are down, so the on-duty officers have more availability to handle other calls. Do not ever feel that you are not a good use of the time and resources of the NYPD. Your life and your safety matters. If you need help, call them.
- Leave. If you are in danger of domestic violence, get yourself and your children out as soon as possible. It doesn't matter that the recommendation is to stay home and maintain social distancing. Your safety is more important. If you can leave, do so. Go stay with a friend or family member or get a hotel room. You don't need anyone's permission to leave. Get out of the dangerous situation first and worry about the coronavirus later. Go to the closest police department if you have nowhere else to go. If you do leave, no matter where you go, be sure to document any evidence of abuse you have suffered, photographing or videoing injuries, bruises, damaged clothing, etc.
- Go to a domestic violence shelter. Call the New York State 24 Hour Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-942-6906, the National Domestic Violence 24 Hour Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or Safe Harbor New York City Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-621-HOPE (800-621-4673). They are open despite the pandemic. Shelters across the country are reporting an uptick in calls and requests for assistance and shelters are very much aware that this is a hot button time for victims. They may be able to offer you strategies for getting out, provide a place to stay, or offer other assistance.
- File for an Order of Protection. Yes, New York state courts are closed, but they are open for emergency matters, and domestic abuse is an emergency. If at all possible, work with an experienced attorney. Their office is closed, but most attorneys are working remotely and can file the papers from home. You can also file yourself online or by contacting the Family Justice Center if you have no other alternative. The police and domestic violence shelters can also assist you in filing for an Order of Protection. It is unlikely you will get an immediate hearing if you do file, so you must be prepared to leave until the court date because it is unsafe to remain in the home with an abuser after they have been served with papers. Once the Order of Protection is granted, you will get exclusive occupancy of the home, and the police can force your abuser to vacate the premises, but that could take several days. Note that if you think your partner might call the police or try to file an Order of Protection against you based on false accusations, you should leave immediately. You do not want to be on the wrong end of one of these orders. Orders of Protection can also include a firearms order (forcing the abuser to surrender firearms), child support, a stay away order (keeping the abuser from coming near you), a belongings order (allowing you to get your belongings out of the shared home), and an order barring certain acts, including stalking, assault, abusive phone calls, and so on.
- Create a Safety Plan. If you are not currently in immediate danger, this is the time to create a safety plan. Find out where you can go if you have to leave. Reach out to friends and family and find out if they can help you know how to get wherever you might need to go. Have a bag packed and ready to go – or at least have items you need together in one drawer so you can access them and quickly place them in a bag.
Your safety is crucially important, and it is imperative that you take the steps necessary to protect yourself, no matter how dangerous the health crisis becomes. If you need an experienced attorney, please do not hesitate to call Bikel and Schanfield at 212.682.6222.