Report: Alarming rise in intimate partner violence homicide cases during the pandemic

By Adrienne Washington, For the Mirror

Recent reports from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office reveal an alarming rise in intimate partner violence homicide cases during the pandemic. KCPAO and partnered community advocate organizations are working to pivot their services in order to counteract the high volume of cases.

Between 2016 to 2019, the KCPAO saw an average of four to nine domestic violence homicides per year. In the year the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, domestic violence homicides doubled to 18 total deaths. The trend continued into 2021 with 16 homicide deaths. As of May 2022, there have been seven total homicides, which is on pace with the previous rate of DV homicides reported in the early years of the pandemic.

King County has a history of partner violence with severe cases leading individuals to take their own or their partners’ life. Due to social isolation and economic instability continuing years into the pandemic, new questions emerge about how to handle the increasing number of partner violence deaths and higher needs of services for survivors.

Domestic Abuse Women’s Network is a non-profit organization and community partner to KCPAO which works with survivors of domestic violence. Angela Mercado, the executive director of DAWN, explains the factors their organization observed which may have contributed to an increase in cases.

“When a lot of aspects of our community, our state, and the nation as a whole were experiencing a pandemic, when some of those systems became remote or when some of the system’s had the shelter-in-place. With that isolation came a higher frequency of lethality as well as instability,” Mercado said, “it’s just the increase in client service needs and the need to build capacity to be able to continue to serve the higher-level [of services], especially coming from this pandemic.”

To combat the unfortunate rise in homicides, KCPAO and Washington public health organizations have made it their top priority to pivot their services to track partner violence deaths. The KCPAO has been on the front lines of addressing the rise in high lethality cases, or cases which lead to the death or strangulation of a victim.

The KCPAO partnered with Public Health Seattle and King County to create a COVID-19 data dashboard to give the public a more accurate snapshot of the total deaths or cases. The data dashboard is the first of its’ kind and is pioneering the future of domestic violence data tracking nationwide.

Though King County has one of the most innovative systems in the nation, there are still many holes in the system which allow domestic violence and associated deaths to go unreported. This is because domestic violence deaths are not a categorized tracked measurement in the state of Washington. David Martin, the Senior Deputy Prosecutor for the KCPAO, shares that the data is only reflective of domestic violence occurences that are made known to their department.

“In King County, there’s 350 to 400 suicides that happen every year. Unless it’s part of a murder-suicide, we have no idea whether or not those deaths are associated with domestic violence. We track homicides, but we don’t typically track corollary deaths,” Martin said.

A domestic violence death may go undiscovered if the intimate partner violence remained unreported. Additionally, corollary deaths are when a bystander or third party individual passes away due to the actions involved in intimate partner violence, however, there is no standardization for tracking this measurement statewide or nationwide.

The issue of tracking and understanding domestic violence rates in King County and Washington state calls for a greater public health response. The KCPAO has been working with the Washington Department of Health, Harborview, and the University of Washington to gain a community public health perspective.

“We have to do the work of prosecution of charging and resolution, jury trials and all that stuff. That has to be done as well as it possibly can be done. And that’s a challenge, especially now, you know, you have a lot more cases pending trial than used to be,” Martin said. “You have to be curious as to what else is happening, and there’s no better people to do that with than the University of Washington, Harborview; [they] are internationally renowned for the great work they do, and we’re just incredibly fortunate [to work with them]. Whether it’s Harborview Center for Trauma, Harborview Injury Prevention, the UW Public Health or Seattle King County Public health or the Institute for Health Metrics.

Along with the public health response, community organizations and the KCPAO are making the rise in need for services their top priority by providing legal advocacy, therapy, as well as other services to victims and their families.