Violence at home: COVID-19 upends domestic violence prosecutions

Mardi Link, The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.
·10 min read

Feb. 28—TRAVERSE CITY — Incidents of domestic violence spiked in northwest lower Michigan during the COVID-19 pandemic, upending how some prosecutors make charging decisions, data compiled by the Record-Eagle shows.

Between March and December 2020, domestic violence calls to Grand Traverse County's 911 dispatchers increased 16 percent over the previous year.

Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg said her office in 2020 received three times the number of requests for domestic violence prosecutions, as those received in 2019.

"What we saw were people that were just trapped together in the same house and so they would call law enforcement," Moeggenberg said.

Yet domestic violence charges filed by her office during the pandemic — March to December 2020 — declined by as much as 24 percent compared to the same period in 2019, documents obtained by the Record-Eagle show.

Severity of abuse

Moeggenberg said she and her staff considered the severity of each case and whether there had been a regular pattern of abuse when making charging decisions.

"A lot of them were either not that serious, or to something we couldn't prove," she said.

Other prosecutors in the region say domestic violence cases charged have often been more severe during the pandemic — five strangulation attempts in 2020 in Leelanau County, for example.

In Benzie County, data shows that domestic violence charges increased 90 percent during the pandemic, while the county's related 911 calls increased by 61 percent.

Prosecutor Sara Swanson was elected in 2011, and said during her first eight years in office, she's reviewed a single homicide case.

That changed in 2020.

"We had four homicides in Benzie County in 2020," Swanson said.

Three of those were in the same household and on the same night, police reports show.

Robert Michael Freebold of Elberta faces three counts of open murder in the Nov. 20, 2020 deaths of his son, his former wife and her second, younger son.

Swanson credited Benzie County Commissioners with adding funding to the budget allowing her to hire an additional prosecutor — a request Moeggenberg has repeatedly made to the Grand Traverse County Board, so far without success.

"That wasn't related to COVID or anything," Swanson said, of the new hire, "but that definitely helps with the workload going up."

Sarah Prout-Rennie, executive director of the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said increased 911 calls are just the tip of the iceberg.

COVID-related factors like backed up courts, delayed jury trials and no assurance of a criminal charge mean fewer people are calling law enforcement, she said.

"If I were a survivor, and I knew the police were probably not going to arrest and there's not going to be a prosecution for a year, I'm not gonna call," said Prout-Rennie.

She suspects that many people are facing severe violence without involving authorities.

"If I am afraid of my husband and not sure if police will arrest or don't have any resources, I am not gonna call 911," said Prout-Rennie. "However since calls have increased we think that the folks calling are in situations that are simply untenable."

A victim/survivor might decide to endure some violence because they feel trapped and have no where to go, she said.

Those who do call aren't likely to do so simply because they're cooped up and having an argument, she said.

A call to 911 to report a beating or a threat might mean staying in a congregate setting such as an emergency shelter, often with children, which could expose a victim and their family to COVID-19.

Prout-Rennie also said calls to the group's hotline have spiked during the pandemic.

From October 2019 to October 2020, MCEDV domestic violence hotline volunteers fielded 1,250 calls. From October 2020 to December 2020, the hotline answered 1,000 calls, and then another 700 in January.

She said victims calling a shelter for help during the pandemic, "are the ones that are like, 'I'm going to die.'"

The Women's Resource Center in Traverse City also staffs a crisis hotline, which executive director Juliette Schultz said has been operational during the pandemic.

WRC has seen increased call volume and increased requests for help filing personal protection orders with the court, she said.

Financial status of families

Moeggenberg said when making charging decisions she also considered the stalled court calendar and how a no-contact order — required in domestic violence prosecutions — might impact a family's finances.

"Now they (the victim/family) have to pay for them to live and for him to live somewhere else," she said. "We do think about it always, but especially when we know there is no end in sight."

Leelanau County Assistant Prosecutor Tristan Chamberlain said finances were at the end of a long list of considerations, and often didn't factor into charging decisions.

Prosecutors in two neighboring counties — Benzie and Kalkaska — said financial constraints played no role at all.

"I still charged in those cases," said Swanson, of incidents when a no-contact order meant a decline in household income. "And the person who was abused gets to stay home."

Kalkaska County Prosecutor Mike Perrault agreed.

"There are things we take into consideration," he said, "but certainly not that."

In 2020, Perrault said his office reviewed 43 domestic violence cases — 31 misdemeanor and 12 felony cases — and charged in all of them.

Some of those felony charges arose from related criminal actions, such as resisting arrest or interfering with an electronic communications device like a cellphone, he said.

There were 58 total domestic violence cases in Kalkaska in 2019 — more than in 2020— though Perrault said he noticed a spike during Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's initial shutdown order, when hourly wage workers weren't getting a paycheck, yet couldn't apply for unemployment because they hadn't been laid off.

Perrault said he understands financial burdens and stress can intensify domestic violence.

"But I'm not going to be like, 'Gosh, I feel bad because this person doesn't have a place to stay,'" he said. "They were reported to have assaulted somebody, and the person they assaulted deserves to feel safe in our community."

Swanson said under rare circumstances, when a couple expresses an intention to get back together after a domestic violence incident, if there has been a cooling off period and safety measures are in place, she has eased the no-contact order while a case is pending.

"We are dealing with the same issues as Grand Traverse, but we've handled it differently," she said. "We still charged it."

Examples of escalation

Contained in the data analyzed by the Record-Eagle, were incidents of domestic violence reports, which sometimes resulted in an arrest and conviction, where the person was released on bond and then re-offended.

In August, Nicole Monkhouse of Grawn was arrested and charged on suspicion of assault with a dangerous weapon, assault on a police officer and being a habitual offender. She was released on a conditional bond, which barred her from being at the same address or within 500 yards of the person she is accused of assaulting.

Court records show she violated bond, yet in an effort to keep jail population low, bond was continued with the same conditions. In January she was arrested on suspicion of attempted assault on a police officer and domestic violence. Bond was denied and court records show she's lodged in Grand Traverse County's jail, awaiting a March 4 hearing.

In an unrelated incident, Armando Jennings was arrested on suspicion of assault with intent to do great bodily harm and aggravated domestic violence in September, after what Moeggenberg said was a reported attempted strangulation. Jennings was released on a $10,000, 10 percent bond, house arrest and a GPS tether, court records show.

He failed to appear for a Nov. 2 preliminary hearing, records show, and was later charged in Big Rapids with domestic violence, Moeggenberg said. Jennings' attorney filed paperwork showing he'd argue self-defense/mutual combat at trial and bond was continued.

A hearing in Jennings case is scheduled in Grand Traverse County's 86th District Court for March 18.

A dozen or so cases with accusations of re-offending are pending in area courts, records show.

'Mutuals' test law enforcement capacity

Moeggenberg said law enforcement agencies have seen an increase in "mutuals" — calls where officers reported having difficulty determining who they believe was a victim and who was the perpetrator.

"That's almost impossible to prosecute," Moeggenberg said, "because the officer is up on the stand testifying, and the defense attorney says, 'Well, didn't you request a warrant for the victim in this case?' And they obviously have to say yes, and explain that even when they were there ... they couldn't tell who was the initial aggressor."

Both Chamberlain and Swanson agreed these incidents can be difficult to charge. Swanson said her office had not seen an increase in such incidents.

Amanda Goodson, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who researches intimate partner violence, points out that victims are usually the only witnesses to abuse.

"If there is not evidence to support (a charge), then it's very difficult to meet the standard of proof that prosecutors have to meet," she said.

She said in her research, she has seen some police forces do away with arrests during mutual calls altogether.

"There are several agencies that I know of that have an underlying policy where if they cannot determine an aggressor, then no arrests can be made," said Goodson.

A rise in mutuals, or other difficult-to-prosecute cases, is likely an indication of a lack of law enforcement capacity, said Prout-Rennie.

"There are many ways to criticize law enforcement but the practical issue is, there's not enough resources," she said. "Nobody put extra money into law enforcement during COVID."

More calls, she said, means responding officers don't have time to do the "deep dive" necessary to have a full understanding of the incident. It's an issue that can be worse in rural areas where funds are hard to come by.

COVID reveals systemic cracks

The pandemic revealed existing cracks in a system designed to respond to and care for victims of domestic violence, even as those cracks have grown larger as people suffer from financial and emotional anxiety.

"There's no good way to capture the system failure that domestic violence survivors are experiencing," Prout-Rennie said.

One answer — fund community organizations like the Women's Resource Center in Traverse City, something a local fundraising leader said was essential to having a healthy community.

"As the pandemic has unfolded, we've seen our most vulnerable families and community members, including victims of domestic violence, disproportionately impacted," said David Mengebier, president and CEO of the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation.

"In order to have healthy, resilient, and thriving communities, we need to continue providing vital services, from shelter access to counseling programs, so that our neighbors across our five-county region receive the help they need to recover from a crisis," he said.

Moeggenberg said signing a warrant in a domestic violence case is a big decision. Even before the pandemic, she said she worried about people slipping through the cracks, and those concerns have only increased.

"We're all just getting through, I mean, the whole country," Moeggenberg said. "And I don't really know what the answer is — we're dealing with new territory."

Record-Eagle Data Journalist Kaye LaFond's work is made possible by support from the nonprofit journalism service organization, Report for America, and generous donors in the Grand Traverse region. To help support Kaye's work and the growing Record-Eagle partnership with Report for America, go to www.record-eagle.com/rfa.