Tarrant County saw domestic violence homicides spike in 2020. It's part of a Texas-wide trend.
A report on victims who died at the hands of abusive partners in Tarrant County spotlights a gruesome side effect of the pandemic: a rise in domestic violence.
Tarrant County saw 17 women die at the hands of intimate partners in 2020. That’s the highest number of domestic violence homicides on record in the county.
Seven children were also impacted by the homicides. Most were adult children, according to the report. One child was shot by an offender, but lived. A teenage boy was killed. One of the victims was pregnant with twins, who died in utero.
If you’re experiencing abuse or partner violence and need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or you can chat with an advocate on their website. SafeHaven of Tarrant County's crisis hotline is 1-877-701-7233, and resources are available on their website.
The spike in intimate partner violence deaths in Tarrant County mirrors that of other places around Texas and the nation. According to the Texas Council on Family Violence, 228 Texans died at the hands of their partners in 2020. That’s a 23% increase from 2019.
Partner violence heightened with the pandemic
As the pandemic began upending life, it trapped many experiencing intimate partner violence at home with their abuser. Domestic violence agencies saw concerning trends: Surging calls for help and an intensification of violence.
“Just the severity of the violence that we’d see, it's hard to quantify," Kathryn Jacob, who runs domestic abuse nonprofit SafeHaven of Tarrant County, said. "But when you're someone who answers a hotline on a regular basis or someone who does intake or an assessment of these cases on a regular basis, you can see just how violent some of these cases have become.”
A team of researchers with the nonpartisan think tank the Council on Criminal Justice examined findings from a dozen studies drawn from police calls, health records and domestic violence hotlines, among other sources. They concluded that domestic violence incidents reported to authorities rose nationwide by about 8% in 2020.
“Stay-at-home orders and the pandemic’s economic impacts exacerbated factors that tend to be associated with such violence: increased male unemployment, stress associated with child care and homeschooling, increased financial insecurity, and poor coping strategies, including the increased use of alcohol and other substances,” the report said.
Data on intimate partner violence is notoriously challenging. It often happens in private and is often unreported. Many survivors mistrust police or health authorities due to prior bad experiences, or they fear of collateral consequences like deportation, homelessness or losing custody of children.
Even when violence is reported, it may not be distinguished as part of a pattern of abuse by law enforcement, making it statistically invisible to researchers.
Guns, Gun Laws & Domestic Violence Homicides
One unmissable fact from the Tarrant County fatality review is the cause of death in most of the cases: Firearms were used to kill 9 of the 17 victims.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, “the presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the risk of homicide for women by 500%.” That same research points out that more than half of all women murdered with guns are killed by family members or intimate partners.
Researchers have also found that higher rates of gun ownership correspond, singularly, with higher rates of domestic violence homicides.
Last month, when a new Texas law went into effect allowing people to carry handguns without permits, the Texas Council on Family Violence said it was “filled with apprehension.”
The group called on law enforcement agencies and judges across Texas to enforce a 20-year-old state law requiring courts to temporarily take guns away from people charged with domestic violence offenses or whose partners have filed a protective order against them.
“Less than 10 of our state’s 254 counties have a program in place to enforce the transfer of firearms from convicted abusers in accordance with the law,” the group wrote. “That means a defendant can be convicted by a state court for committing a domestic violence offense and walk away still having access to guns ¡ oftentimes with no steps taken to enforce firearm prohibitions intended to prevent future violence.”
Over the past decade, the number of women murdered by an intimate partner with a firearm in Texas has nearly doubled, the group pointed out.
Jacob said talking about the links between guns and domestic violence homicides is a "hard conversation."
“We are not saying that everybody who owns a gun is going to kill their wife,” she said. “We are not saying that everyone who owns a gun is an abuser. What we are saying is that if you are an abuser already, and you own a gun, the level of danger and risk of homicide increases.”
Power & control
Intimate partner violence is a pattern of power and control. Abusers use emotional, physical and financial coercion to manipulate, isolate and ultimately control their victims.
While it may not turn deadly, abuse rarely stops on its own.
“The abuse will continue if it is not addressed, and the people who cause abuse are offenders. So when an offender causes abuse and the court system does nothing, they're going to use abuse again because it worked for them the last time,” Jacob said.
This power and control pattern is fundamental to understanding two trends in the Tarrant County report that are grim and yet unsurprising to Jacob: Most of the relationships had lasted only months, not years; and the majority of the relationships had ended prior to the homicide.
“Offenders can establish their pattern pretty quickly in a relationship,” Jacob said, noting that the abuser and the victim don’t even need to be married or even formally dating for a homicide to be considered intimate partner violence.
The most dangerous time periods for people leaving an abuser, Jacob said, are when the relationship ends and in the three months that follow the survivor leaving. Abusers often pursue their former partners aggressively, hoping to convince or coerce them back into the relationship.
“She's taking that power back, and she's she is effectively saying to the offender, 'You do not control me anymore.' Well, guess what? That can be a really significant trigger for someone whose role in the relationship depends on him having power and control over her,” Jacob said.
Increased violent crime
FBI crime statistics released last month showed major increases in violent crimes in 2020, including a 30% increase in murders nationwide. It’s a dramatic spike, even though crime remains significantly lower than it was in the 1990s.
In Texas, homicides increased 37% from 2019 to 2020.
Exactly how much domestic violence fits into that spike is unclear. Homicides are driven by a range of factors including gang violence and drug trafficking, and 2020 was a unique year because of the pandemic.
“I would not be surprised if a large number of homicides are actually intimate partner violence homicides,” Jacob said.
One chilling fact learned in the review of Tarrant County fatalities: Not one of the victims had called the domestic violence hotline or sought support services from SafeHaven before they were killed.
“What we've learned is, if somebody reaches out for help, they often do not end up being the victim of a homicide,” she said.
A 2011 University of Texas at Austin study found 1 in 3Texans had experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetimes — that’s higher than the national average.
Jacob said that’s why it’s so important for men and women to know that there is help available to keep survivors safe.
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Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at firstname.lastname@example.org.You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.