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Longmont, Boulder victim advocates remain busy through pandemic, noticing increase in domestic violence calls

BEST1 LONGMONT, CO – OCTOBER 8: Longmont victim services coordinator Alexis Gutierrez, left, and victim advocate Alexa Moreno pose for a portrait in front of Safety and Justice Center on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, in Longmont, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)
BEST1 LONGMONT, CO – OCTOBER 8: Longmont victim services coordinator Alexis Gutierrez, left, and victim advocate Alexa Moreno pose for a portrait in front of Safety and Justice Center on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, in Longmont, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)

Longmont police Victim Services Coordinator Alexis Gutierrez remembers the weekend Boulder County’s stay-at-home order was lifted. The end of quarantine brought a surge in calls, she said — particularly domestic violence calls.

Since March, Gutierrez said the victim services unit has seen 662 cases. Of those, 578 were related to domestic violence.

“When quarantine first started, we did see a decrease in reports, and understandably so, especially with domestic violence. It wasn’t a safe time to report,” Gutierrez said. “A lot of people were quarantined with their abuser, and (they didn’t) have the opportunity to call the police or to call a confidential shelter.”

Longmont Victim Advocate Alexa Moreno said she saw a similar trend with child abuse reports once students went back to school.

Moreno, Gutierrez and 18 volunteers make up Longmont’s advocacy program. Victim advocates typically respond to the scene when the victim says they’re interested in speaking to someone when asked by law enforcement.

Advocates inform victims of their rights and provide emotional support.

But as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded, both Longmont police and Boulder police advocates were forced to adapt to responding by phone only.

“We lose out on the personal contact, which is so important,” Boulder police volunteer victim advocate Leena Bhagat said. “You cannot pick up on nonverbal cues from victims over the phone.”

Bhagat said the one benefit of responding by phone is being able to contact the victim immediately, rather than having to drive to the scene first.

Gutierrez said Longmont advocates have shifted from responding by phone only to responding only to domestic violence and sexual assault calls, and now they are responding to all calls in person — with masks and while maintaining distance.

“Domestic violence and sex assault just tend to have different dynamics. And a lot of the time it’s people that are known to them, and that makes it a tad bit more dangerous,” Gutierrez explained.

Gutierrez said Longmont has seen more domestic violence cases to date in 2020 than 2019, but the numbers are “almost identical to the numbers in 2018.” She said from March 15 through Sept. 30 there were 92 reported sexual assaults this year, compared to 102 in the same time frame last year.

Boulder Police Victim Services Coordinator Susan Townley described a similar trend as Gutierrez: a decrease in calls at the beginning of the pandemic followed by an upswing.

Townley said she, the program assistant and the 45 volunteer advocates have responded to 140 domestic violence calls since March, noting they do not respond to every call that comes in to police.

“I think that the domestic violence calls were down at the beginning of the stay-at-home order, but rose some once that was lifted,” she said. “I felt like I was responding to more property crimes like burglaries and criminal trespasses.”

Bhagat said through her volunteer shifts she’s noticed an increase in domestic violence calls, tracing the jump back to the stay-at-home order being lifted.

Townley and her team are still responding through phone. She said she has responded to incidents only when “officers believed that an in-person response was absolutely necessary.”

“We were talking about going back to some in-person responses if advocates felt comfortable, but with the increase in COVID cases in Boulder and Boulder County, it was decided that we will continue to respond via phone,” she said.

Whether response is by phone or in person, some advocates feel their work is more important now than ever.

“I think when people are more isolated, knowing there’s an information line that is a conduit to helping them access resources is really important,” Boulder volunteer advocate Craig Christopher said. “I think it clearly is very, very important.”

Bhagat said especially in domestic violence and sexual assault cases, an advocate’s role is crucial in being there for the victim.

“We’re not there to blame you,” she said. “You are for the victim. You are present there for the victim.”

Looking forward, Gutierrez said she and Moreno are prepared to see domestic violence calls continue to climb.

October is domestic violence awareness month, and both Gutierrez and Townley say they hope individuals report violence and know what resources are available.

“If there’s anything I want people to know, it’s that there are resources for folks to get help,” Townley said. “I think it’s easier to become involved in a domestic violence relationship that most people realize, and there’s no shame in asking for help to get out of it.”

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