Oct. 29—Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify the contacts of resources available to victims.
The Safe Shelter of St. Vrain Valley in Longmont has 31 beds available for anyone needing free, confidential and safe support while seeking refuge from an abusive relationship. However, for the entirety of 2023, the shelter has been full.
Domestic violence reports are reaching an all-time high in Boulder County and Longmont, forcing shelters like St. Vrain Valley to turn victims away during the most dangerous period of their relationship: when they choose to leave.
"What we do when people call, is try to connect them with another shelter," Executive Director of Safe Shelter of St. Vrain Valley Jackie List said. "If it's a very concerning incident, we can, on occasion, provide a hotel room for a time until we can either bring them in or find space for them."
Longmont domestic violence cases make up 40-50% of the reported cases in the county, according to List. While month to month domestic violence reports have stayed somewhat consistent this year, List said there is the most demand for the shelter in the summertime.
"Summer is an easier time for people to leave," List said. "They're not going to run into weird weather, kids are out of school, it's just easier. So our shelter usually starts filling up in May."
While the number of domestic violence incidents may be higher during colder months or holidays due to victims being isolated with their abusers, less people reach out to shelters. This could be due to their inability to get away from their abuser long enough to make a call, or simply because they're just trying to get through the holidays, List said.
Domestic violence as a social problem
During COVID-19, List said the shelter's crisis lines were dead.
"That was heartbreaking because we knew what was happening and we were unable to reach people and they were unable to reach us," List said. "When the lockdown lifted, very slowly our calls started upticking again. In '21, police reports were higher than they've ever been and this year I think we're going to match it or go past it."
Every Wednesday, the Safe Shelter of St. Vrain Valley meets with Longmont Police Department, Child Protection Services, Adult Protection Services, the District Attorney's Office, Longmont Ending Domestic Violence Initiative and an offender treatment representative. In this meeting, the agencies review all the domestic violence reports from the week before to make sure "victims are getting what they need and offenders are being held accountable," List said.
The Longmont Ending Domestic Violence Initiative is a confidential program run by Ashley Mendez Ruiz under the Longmont Police Department. Mendez Ruiz reaches out to every victim contacted by the police to provide support, resources and help in filing a protection order if the victim wishes.
Mendez Ruiz also does outreach work that includes giving presentations in schools and educating kids and teens about abusive relationships.
During her workshops, Mendez Ruiz guides students and members of the public on what domestic violence is, where it stems from, what it looks like, how to address it as a witness or loved one and what support resources there are in Longmont and Boulder County.
"I don't like to provide victims the hope that things will change but I do think (abuse) is preventable," Mendez Ruiz said. "There are different causes for abusive behaviors, sometimes people have abusive tendencies because it's what they have seen and normalized. Some times it's enabled by our cultural or religious beliefs, so there's a social construct to this behavior that if we don't address is going to keep producing and reproducing abusive tendencies and abusive people."
Mendez Ruiz said dating violence reports from teens is rising in the area and List said the age group most likely to be in abusive relationships is 18- through 24-year-olds.
"As long as we don't address or acknowledge domestic violence as a social problem, as the pandemic that it is, numbers are not going to go down," Mendez Ruiz said. "If we start changing the conversation, if we start changing the gears and moving away from all that contributes to domestic violence and we provide the education that needs to be provided from a very young age into adulthood, I'm hopeful that numbers will go down."
Mendez Ruiz says that increased numbers doesn't necessarily mean more abuse is happening, but could be that more people are feeling comfortable coming forward and reporting.
Identifying high-risk cases
The Domestic Violence Acute Response team at the Boulder County District Attorney's Office specifically works to prosecute domestic violence offenders but also contacts victims when an abuser has broken a protection order and a mandatory protection order is filed.
A year ago, Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty implemented the Lethality Assessment Program which requires law enforcement to assess victims of domestic violence on the extent of abuse that occurred.
"The goal is to identify high-risk cases," Dougherty said in a statement. "We prosecute hundreds and hundreds of domestic violence cases every year, so it is important to utilize a standardized, objective measure to assess for the risk of re-offense with potentially deadly consequences."
If the potential for lethality is high, the responder will ask if the victim wants to speak with an advocate. If they say "yes," the officer will connect them with an agency like the Safe Shelter of St. Vrain Valley before stepping away to preserve confidentiality.
Alison Brand is a Senior Deputy District Attorney with the Boulder County DA's Office, specifically on the response team.
She said the county has seen a rise in the severity of strangulation cases, which is concerning as it presents a high potential for lethal outcomes. Brand attributes the increase in severity and number of reported strangulation cases to both isolation from COVID-19 as well as an increase in the reported cases where coercive, controlling factors are present.
Stalking has also been on the rise, Brand said, with offenders being able to reach victims in more accessible ways through technology. Brand mentioned cyber abuse and stalking can include the usage of Air Tags to track victims, social media stalking and excessive texting and calling.
"(Stalking) can be a barrage of contact methods that overwhelm our victims to the point where they feel like they can't leave their house, can't go on social media, they can't continue their life as they were living it for fear of the offender," Brand said.
The District Attorney's Office is currently in the early stages of establishing a family resource center. Brand said she hopes the center will open in the next few years and will be a safe space for families and victims of domestic violence.
In an emergency, victims should call 911. The National Domestic Abuse Hotline can be reached at 800-799-7233. Those seeking emergency bilingual counseling, advocacy and shelter can call the Safe Shelter of St. Vrain crisis line at 303-772-4422. Those needing bilingual victim advocacy can call LEVI at 303.774.4534.