Some nights, Ralph Ford sits at the bedside of his 8-year-old granddaughter and stays until she feels safe enough to fall asleep.
The little girl heard the gunshots when her mom’s fiancé opened fire on Sept. 4, killing her mother, 33-year-old Clarissa Ford, before ending his own life. That day, her mom told her to hide. She cowered under the kitchen table during the shooting.
Now, at night, she’s plagued by nightmares.
“I think she relives everything,” Ralph Ford said of his granddaughter. “She has moments that she’ll say something, just out of the blue: ‘I miss Mom.’”
Clarissa Ford is one of the hundreds of victims in metro Denver who been killed or injured because of domestic violence since COVID-19 restrictions lifted. After a concerning drop in reports during the first weeks of the pandemic this spring, reports of domestic violence skyrocketed in several communities in the Denver area as a shortage of shelter beds means hundreds of victims seeking help are turned away.
Denver police have recorded a surge in serious domestic violence assaults since May. Police in Boulder and Longmont, too, are seeing significant increases. In Aurora, requests for counseling and shelter have swelled. Everyone who spoke to The Denver Post for this story said they’ve seen an increase in violent abuse and the violence is becoming more severe.
“Having the phones ringing again is a double-edged sword,” said Abby Hansen, director of counseling and advocacy services at SafeHouse Denver, which has seen a dramatic increase in requests for service since stay-at-home orders were lifted in late April. “We’re glad people are reaching out, but it also highlights the tremendous need.”
The pandemic has created a tidal wave of circumstances that exacerbate the risk of violence, advocates and experts said. Increased isolation, growing financial instability and overwhelming stress from COVID-19 have created dangerous situations for many victims of abuse.
Providing needed, lifesaving services — a complicated task in non-pandemic times — has only become more difficult, service providers said. Shelters, already almost always at capacity, had to cut down on the number of beds available so clients and staff could practice social distancing. Survivors trying to move out of shelters are struggling to find housing, child care and employment in an expensive housing market and a restricted economy, so many are staying in emergency shelters longer. That means fewer available beds during an uptick in need.
“Domestic violence was already an epidemic, and now we have this epidemic inside of a pandemic,” said James Gillespie, executive director of Aurora-based Gateway Domestic Violence Services.
Clarissa Ford never had the chance to seek help. She never told her dad about any signs of abuse or violence, Ralph Ford said, and her life seemed to be headed exactly where she wanted it to go.
Her fourth daughter had just been born, she earned her insurance agent license over the summer and was slated to be married in early September. She was designing her own clothing line and working to launch a nonprofit to help people experiencing homelessness. She was thrilled to be a mom to her four daughters — ages 14, 8, 2 and six months — who are now in the care of their grandparents.
“Life was just so right in front of her,” Ralph Ford, Clarissa’s father, said. “Everything was finally seeming to come together for her. She was seemingly in complete control. I was so proud of her.”
As restrictions lifted, cases spiked
In Denver this year, aggravated assaults connected to domestic violence have surged over the three-year average, Denver Police Department data shows. Denver police recorded 775 stabbings, non-fatal shootings and physical assaults connected to domestic violence that resulted in serious injury in the first nine months of 2020 — a 46% increase over the average of 530 such assaults in the same time period between 2017 and 2019.
At least two people have been killed in domestic violence homicides since March, including Clarissa Ford. The other victim was a father trying to protect his daughter from a boyfriend, suspected of abusing the young woman.
“I just tell people to talk to their kids, and to let them know that it’s OK to say something if they’re being abused or if something doesn’t feel right in their relationship or if their partner is talking about violence,” Ralph Ford said.
Month-by-month data shows reported domestic violence crimes in Denver dipped slightly below average in March and April as the pandemic changed nearly every aspect of normal life. In the first weeks, service providers worried that victims trapped with abusers would have fewer opportunities to seek help and would become more isolated.
In May, as governments gradually lifted restrictions, reports of domestic violence in Denver surged and remained higher than normal through August, police data shows. Though reports of domestic violence in Denver dipped slightly in September, overall reports are up 7% thus far in 2020 compared to the three-year average.
Authorities in Boulder and Longmont also have recorded above-average numbers of domestic violence cases, Boulder County Senior Deputy District Attorney Anne Kelly said. Domestic violence calls to Boulder police are up by 31% from March 16 through July 15 compared to the same time period in 2019, she said.
“We’re seeing a record number of cases month over month in Longmont,” she said.
Aurora police also have seen an increase in the number of domestic violence cases, especially those involving strangulation, Aurora Police Department victim advocate Lisa Battan said.
“It seems like the cases are much more severe, much more violent,” Battan said.
At Gateway, advocates saw a swell of requests for counseling after the first weeks of the pandemic. Gateway staff served 292 counseling clients in April alone, nearly the same amount — 324 people — they served in the first three months of the year combined.
“That was a heavy, heavy month,” Gillespie said.
Not enough beds
Statewide trends are harder to decipher, said Brooke Ely-Milen, director of the Domestic Violence Program at the Colorado Department of Human Services. The program collects quarterly data from the 45 domestic violence service providers across the state, and Ely-Milen said the impact of the pandemic on need and services has varied.
Current statewide crime data is not available yet, though annual crime statistics published at the end of the year by the FBI and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation will provide a broader overview.
But one trend is consistent, especially in the Denver metro area: There aren’t enough shelter beds. Prior to the pandemic, Colorado shelters were at capacity between 80% and 90% of the time, Ely-Milen said.
“That problem of being under-resourced is exacerbated during the pandemic,” she said.
In Aurora, that means the area’s only emergency shelter for domestic violence survivors turned away more than 200 victims — and hundreds of their children — between April and September because there wasn’t enough space.
“As much as we try to refer people to other providers, we’ve found they’re full as well,” Gillespie said. “So now turn away really does mean turn away.”
Both Gateway and Denver SafeHouse had to reduce the number of people who can stay in a single room. Previously, multiple families could stay in a room, but because of the pandemic they are limiting each room to a single family.
Advocacy organizations have been creative in responding to the need, Ely-Milen said. Some have paid for clients to stay in hotel rooms, though it’s much more expensive to pay for a room than to house someone in a shelter. Placing clients in external housing also makes it harder for advocates to provide food and services.
Victims with school-aged children also have to navigate their kids’ remote learning, which means some students are logging into class from the domestic violence shelter they’re living in. Victims also have to balance the risks of staying with an abuser or risk exposure to the virus by moving into a shelter where dozens of others may be living.
“One of the things we’ve seen consistently through the pandemic, regardless of the number of the calls we get, the complexity of the calls are astounding,” Hansen said.
Despite the challenges, advocates encouraged victims and survivors to reach out to service organizations for support.
“We’re here,” Hansen said. “We’re open.”
Ralph Ford, too, hopes that other families will seek help for their loved ones who might be in danger. He feels blessed that his granddaughters are OK, but is still left with questions that have no good answers. Did he miss a sign that something was wrong? How could the fiancé — whom he believed to be a gentleman — commit such horror?
“How am I going to fill that personal void?” he said. “She was super important in my life. How do I fill that in?”
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