San Francisco struggles to address pandemic spike in domestic violence

‘Where we are falling short is not holding abusers accountable’

San Francisco is facing a disturbing uptick in family violence and growing discord over its response.

Throughout 2020, the number of jury trials in San Francisco fell sharply and were halted completely for a number of months. Reporting of domestic violence incidents also dropped as victims had fewer avenues to seek help due to pandemic-related shutdowns, according to a recently released report from the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women.

The decline in reporting, however, is paired with myriad research showing domestic violence incidents surged during the pandemic. The United Nations Population Fund estimates there was a 20% increase in intimate partner violence globally due to quarantines and lockdowns.

The trend was a lived reality for Lennette, who managed to escape a violent and abusive relationship that began back in 2015. (She declined to provide her last name for privacy reasons.)

Last November, her abuser was found guilty of eight felonies for incidents where he burned his girlfriend’s face and neck with a lit cigarette, stabbed her in her thigh and abdomen with scissors and bound and gagged her while holding an electric drill to her temple.

“There is too much in life to stay in a relationship that no longer serves either of you. Happiness is realizing you broke a toxic cycle. I know that a trauma bond is real, but once you break your bond with an abuser, you begin to see all these opportunities and you can thrive,” Lennette said to a crowd of about 30 district attorney staff, law enforcement members and community members at an event hosted by the the San Francisco District Attorney’s office to honor domestic violence survivors.

District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Evanthia Pappas, managing attorney of the Domestic Violence Unit for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, lead a march in honor of domestic violence survivors on Oct. 27. (Sydney Johnson/The Examiner)

District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Evanthia Pappas, managing attorney of the Domestic Violence Unit for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, lead a march in honor of domestic violence survivors on Oct. 27. (Sydney Johnson/The Examiner)

Lennette’s story is one of hope and bravery, but it’s also rare, especially over the course of the pandemic in San Francisco.

“In San Francisco, we have an amazing amount of providers that offer services,” said District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who previously served as a prosecutor in Contra Costa County. “But in my opinion, where we are falling short is not holding abusers accountable and getting them the services they need to take responsibility and exit the cycle of violence in a way that doesn’t have them abusing their partner anymore.”

In 2020, about 24% of the total domestic violence cases brought to the District Attorney’s Office were prosecuted and resulted in charges, a notable dip from 2019 (32%), 2018 (35%), and even 2017 (27%), according to data provided by the office.

Earlier this year, Stefani requested data on arrests and charges related to domestic violence, which revealed that in the last three months of 2020, 131 felony domestic violence arrests were made and 113 of those were discharged.

“When I got those numbers back, I have to tell you I was absolutely shocked,” said Stefani.

So far in 2021, the percentage of cases resulting in charges has inched back up to 31%. But at a San Francisco Public Safety Committee hearing on Thursday called to probe The City’s domestic violence response, it was clear that some lack confidence in the system designed to hold abusers accountable.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin told The Examiner that it was harder to gather evidence to prove domestic violence cases during the pandemic. Other DA officials characterized the numbers as “cherry-picked.”

“When you see a variation in charging rates, it’s a reflection of the quality of the investigation we are receiving,” Boudin said. “Often survivors are unwilling to participate in prosecution, and that means having witnesses or other evidence we can use in court. And during the pandemic, sadly, we haven’t had as much of that.”

Stefani and other domestic violence victim advocates don’t buy the argument. Instead, they worry that the DA is letting cases go and allowing repeat offenders off the hook, pointing to examples such as in April 2021, when a 7-month-old boy in San Francisco was murdered by his caregiver, who was arrested twice earlier in the year on suspicion of felony domestic violence. Both times he was released without being charged.

“Domestic violence cases are difficult, but any good prosecutor knows how to prosecute a DV case and you don’t have to rely on the testimony of a victim,” said Stefani. “These cases are able to be prosecuted. End of story.”

Still, domestic violence cases are known to be among the most challenging types of crimes to prosecute. Victims may be scared of testifying because of the potential of retaliation. And due to the intimate nature of the crimes, it’s often difficult to corroborate stories or find witnesses.

“We recognize that not every survivor wants to go forward with a criminal case. But certainly, we are hearing from survivors who are facing serious domestic violence that their cases aren’t moving forward. We have to strike a balance,” said Beverly Upton, executive director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium. “I don’t consider the DA an enemy, but the criminal justice system is there to protect the survivor and protect the public.”

Evanthia Pappas, managing attorney of the Domestic Violence Unit for the District Attorney’s Office, understands the challenge she’s up against.

“The pandemic has affected domestic violence prosecutions, there’s no doubt,” Pappas told The Examiner. “Anecdotally, I can tell you that as soon as restrictions were lifted in June 2021 and vaccines were more available in the spring, we had an immediate spike in reporting and there were more cases coming in from SFPD and we were charging more cases.”

Pappas, who is regarded as a national expert in prosecuting domestic violence cases, said the likelihood of whether a case will be prosecuted often depends on what happens when law enforcement arrives on the scene. She is currently focusing on offering new training and recommendations to the San Francisco Police Department on how to safely support victims and gather crucial information that can later be used in court, even if the witness later decides against testifying.

Even as charges appear to be returning to pre-pandemic levels, advocates at Thursday’s hearing said there’s room to do better, including investing in alternative approaches to helping victims and abusers outside of prosecution.

The San Francisco District Attorney launched a handful of emergency housing and transportation options for victims of domestic violence, including a partnership with Lyft to offer free rides and another with Airbnb that opened 20 furnished apartments for survivors for 90-day stays. It also launched a text service so victims could discreetly try to get help.

“At the start of the pandemic, we were immediately concerned about what shelter-in-place would mean for survivors of domestic violence. It’s one thing to shelter in place, it’s another thing to shelter in place with an abuser,” Boudin said.

Looking back at the past two years, however, some advocates say it wasn’t enough.

In 2020, 79% of clients seeking emergency shelter due to domestic violence were turned away, according to the report from the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women. Women made up 70% of victims in domestic violence incidents responded to by police, and Black and Latino communities were over-represented among victims, the report shows.

Stefani is now putting forth legislation that would require quarterly reporting of local domestic violence incidents, arrests and charges. Without such data, Upton and groups like the San Francisco Women’s Political Committee say it is difficult to understand the full scope of the problem.

Some advocates say an increased focus on law enforcement is not the answer, either. Instead, they promote approaches centered on improving access to basic needs, like housing and food, and increasing community-based violence prevention and recovery programs, such as Men In Progress, a peer-counseling program at the Glide Foundation.

“The most common reason patients in our ER don’t seek care for emergency health conditions was fear of the police,” said Leigh Kimberg, interpersonal violence prevention coordinator for San Francisco’s Department of Public Health and a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco. “We invest very heavily in policing and not in structural supports for safety, like housing, food and income.”

The differing approaches, protracted debates and calls for policy changes underscore the complexity around the issue of domestic violence.

For survivors like Lennette, however, the focus is more on the personal than the political.

“Walking away from something unhealthy is courageous, even if you stumble on your way out. Not everyone will understand what it’s like walking in your shoes, but you do,” she said. “Take care of yourself.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Lennette’s name. It has been updated.

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