A Black adult and Black child hug each other while sitting.
Protective orders issued by courts dropped significantly during the pandemic and have yet to recover. Credit: House of Ruth Facebook page

When the coronavirus hit Baltimore in spring 2020, hearings on protective orders dropped dramatically even as domestic violence grew.

Three years later, the number of protective order hearings is still lower than it was in 2019 — foretelling dangerous conditions for those in violent relationships.

The number of court hearings on protective orders dropped from 306 in January 2020 to just 22 in April of that year.

“A lot of people thought they couldn’t access our services. That was a problem,” said Dorothy Lennig, who runs the House of Ruth Maryland legal clinic that provides legal services to those affected by domestic violence and helps file for protective orders.

Even though the courts were closed to the public and trials were postponed, people could seek protective orders with court commissioners around the clock. The House of Ruth's legal clinic was up and running too. Still, it took a lot of work to let people know that they could help, Lennig said.

Protective orders are granted in cases of dating, domestic or family violence. Courts can order the abuser to refrain from further harm or to stay away from the victim. If they violate the protective order, the police can arrest the abuser.

The plunge in protective orders coincided, perhaps predictably, with a significant increase in domestic violence during the pandemic. One study examined calls to the police and victim service agency hotlines in seven cities, including Baltimore. The researchers found that both types of calls increased in Baltimore, although calls to the police surged more significantly than calls to the hotline. Overall, the city experienced 2,348 additional calls for help in the study period.

While more people sought help, others didn't see a way out. "A lot of them stayed in abusive relationships and didn't think they had any options," Lennig said. Those who did turn to the legal clinic early in the pandemic dealt with worse-than-average abuse, Lennig said. "It was really the most horrible cases."

Demand was increasing, but resources for survivors of domestic violence were lacking. The House of Ruth emergency shelter was at capacity at times and friends and family members might have hesitated to take someone in, worrying about transmission, Lennig said. "There was really nowhere to go for people," she said.

Amie Post, director of the Baltimore County-based Family Crisis Center, said the organization was able to maintain shelter capacity by housing some clients in hotels. At the beginning of the pandemic, demand for shelter was lower, but spiked later, she said. Clients stayed at the shelter longer and long-term housing was hard to come by, which led to a "bottle neck" at the point of access in late 2020, Post said.

Three years after the coronavirus hit Baltimore, the number of protective order hearings is still lower than it was in 2019.

In 2019, courts registered an average of 275 hearings on final protective orders per month. The number dropped to 242 in 2020. In 2022, when courts had returned to normal operations, the figure was still lower than it was in 2019, averaging 248 protective order hearings per month.

The whole legal system was affected by the pandemic. The temporary closing of the courts led to a backlog of pending cases, according to Wendy Lee, deputy director for intimate partner violence prevention at the Mayor's Office for Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. "The transition to virtual court services created an additional challenge for victims who were still cohabiting with their abusive partner or did not have access to reliable internet," Lee said in an e-mail.

Resources for people affected by domestic violence: