On Wednesday morning, a Zachary woman was discovered stabbed to death. Zachary Police arrested her boyfriend, who had a sprawling history of domestic violence arrests, and had recently been released from jail on bond.

He was one of six people arrested on domestic violence-related counts within 24 hours between Tuesday and Wednesday in East Baton Rouge Parish, according to booking documents from the local jail.

Here's how authorities described the incidents:

Aug. 18, 12:57 p.m. — A man angrily accused his girlfriend, who was five months pregnant, of speaking to other men. When she tried to call 911, he took her cell phone, bit her arm and struck her stomach with a wooden board she had used to block a window he had previously broken. 

Aug. 18, 2:20 p.m. — A man, reportedly intoxicated, grabbed his wife and hit her several times, ripping her T-shirt as he attacked her while her 5-year-old son was in the house. 

Aug. 18, 9:40 p.m. — A man struck his longtime partner in the face and potentially fractured her wrist in front of their three children.

Aug. 19, 1 a.m. — A man was arrested on drug counts but was discovered to have also recently violated a protective order against him. He had allegedly sent text messages to a woman with whom he had a domestic abuse history, saying he would kill her.

Aug. 19, 1:40 a.m. — A man armed himself with a kitchen knife, dragged his girlfriend across the floor in front of her two children and tried to stab her in the face. He sliced her hand as she tried to block his blow.

The youngest alleged abuser was 22. The oldest was 49.

The arrest records over those 24 hours are a snapshot of an alarming increase in domestic violence. Baton Rouge police reported 206 more incidents from January through July of 2020 than during the same period last year — an increase of 14 percent.

And that’s just the official figures. Suspects are often booked on counts of battery or aggravated assault with a firearm instead, not specifically domestic abuse.

And many other incidents — advocates and law enforcement have a difficult time estimating exactly how many — are never reported.

Upticks amid lockdown

In March, local officials and advocates warned that domestic violence could get worse in the coming months, with the strain and fear surrounding the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating existing abuse. As a statewide lockdown went into effect, the concern that victims of abuse would be trapped at home with their abusers intensified.

Officials even identified an uptick in those first few uncertain weeks of the outbreak, but cautioned it was too early to draw conclusions without more data.

"We feel that due to COVID and people being inside homes, we were expecting a potential increase," said Sgt. L'Jean McKneely Jr., Baton Rouge Police spokesman. "We had conversations about it early."

They were right. It is a pattern seen not only in the United States, but also across the world.

In 2019, there were four deaths from two domestic violence incidents in East Baton Rouge Parish. In 2020, there have been 13 as of Wednesday’s stabbing, according to District Attorney Hillar Moore III's office.

In addition to the 206 additional incidents, BRPD has arrested 5 percent more people for domestic abuse this year.

The East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office has seen fewer calls through all of 2020. However, spokesperson Casey Rayborn Hicks said that doesn’t mean abuse itself had decreased.

"We may have victims out there who are afraid or unable to reach out for help while at home with an aggressor," she said.

A study in disasters

Tracking domestic violence incidents is notoriously complex.  

While arrests and calls are one measure to assess how frequently these events happen, there are always those victims who don't report. Even when an incident is reported, it may be only the most recent escalation of abuse that has continued for months or years. 

"It's happening in the shadows," said Twahna Harris, a domestic violence advocate. "Just because you don’t see it happening doesn’t mean it’s not happening."

Another way to gauge the reach of domestic violence in an area is by looking at the homicide rate in these cases. 

The parish saw a spike in domestic violence following the catastrophic flooding that deluged the capital region in 2016, Moore said. His office tracked an increase not only in domestic violence incidents around that time, but also in slayings in which domestic abuse was the motive, along with murder-suicides.

Despite 2019's encouraging numbers, Moore feared that, with the COVID-19 outbreak, the rest of 2020 would mirror the year after the 2016 flood, when the parish had 14 deaths. As of Wednesday morning, the 2020 domestic violence death count reached 13. Six of these homicides involved intimate partners.

There were two other homicides involving law enforcement responding to reports of domestic abuse this year. In one case, an officer was killed by the suspect. In the other, the suspect perpetrating the abuse was killed by an officer who arrived to investigate. 

Reggie Ferreira, a Tulane University professor and disaster specialist, said similar patterns have unfolded in different disasters over the past two decades. 

After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, police calls increased as a result of intimate partner violence. A climb in domestic abuse was also seen in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. 

Ferreira and his colleague, intimate partner violence specialist and Tulane professor Frederick Buttell, recently launched a study to examine domestic abuse during the coronavirus. Their preliminary data, gathered through an online survey, has already shown a significant increase in New Orleans. 

"COVID can be blamed for an increase of intimate partner violence," Ferreira said. "If you experience it before COVID, you’re more likely to experience it again as well. There’s just a history that comes with it."

As the pandemic drags on, Ferreira noted, other disasters could further complicate domestic violence in the state. 

"Can you imagine if we experience a hurricane now? Where would a survivor go?"

Finding safety in an unsafe space

Harris, founder and executive director of domestic violence advocacy group The Butterfly Society, said her organization has been inundated with calls from victims since the pandemic began.

"What we’re finding in the calls is that victims are not wanting to leave," she said. "They’re fearful of leaving because we’re faced with this pandemic."

Afraid of risking either their own lives of those of their children, many victims — most of whom are women — are concerned about the safety of shelters. 

Ferreira added that abusers thrive on control, and the pandemic affords them the opportunity to further isolate victims and continue their emotional or physical attacks. 

"If you’re with that abusive partner, they’ll watch you like a hawk," he said.

Now, victims are tasked with "trying to remain safe in an unsafe space," Harris said. This means looking for an empty bedroom, closet or bathroom to spend some time alone, or going outside for a short walk around the block or parking lot. 

She also encourages the public to check on neighbors and loved ones who they suspect may be suffering abuse, a call to action echoed by local law enforcement.

In the meantime, she said she is doing her best to uplift victims during a stretch of interminable stress and anxiety. But there is no perfect safety plan, no easy solutions, she added.

"You give them what works best for them and you’re praying that it works and helps and that they get through and that they’re safe," she said. "That’s what you do — that’s what you have to do."

Those experiencing domestic abuse can contact The Butterfly Society, Iris Domestic Violence Center, the statewide Louisiana Domestic Violence Hotline, and The National Domestic Violence Hotline.


Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com