SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Remote video conferencing, a popular habit formed during the pandemic, could offer courts a safer path to help victims of sexual assault and domestic violence pursue justice against their abusers under a new plan approved by the Illinois Senate.
“For sexual assault survivors, a number of people were in situations where they didn’t feel safe, where they didn’t have as much access to resources as they had prior to the pandemic,” Carrie Ward with the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault said after a press conference at the Illinois Capitol on Tuesday morning.
During the early days of the pandemic, reports of domestic violence dropped off as many people were less likely to come into contact with mandated reporters like teachers, caregivers, or other co-workers who might have offered to help someone go through with filing for an order of protection.
“We don’t believe that this last two years has resulted in less violence,” Ward said. “We believe that it has resulted in less violence that has been reported to law enforcement or even to social service agencies.”
ICASA rape crisis centers saw 20,000 victims of sexual violence in 2021. Legal aid groups report a 43% increase in requests for assistance filing legal orders of protection from 2020 to 2021.
Under the new proposal that now heads to the Illinois House for debate, victims in Illinois could file online to obtain a legal order of protection. Victims in counties with more than 250,000 residents, such as Cook, Lake, DuPage, Will, Kane, McHenry, Madison, St. Clair, and Winnebago counties, would also be allowed to attend their court hearings virtually instead of showing up in person in the court room.
ICASA and other victim advocate groups are backing the proposal, claiming it would provide victims more comfort and safety through a stressful and sometimes dangerous confrontation in a court of law.
“Intimidating behavior can happen across the court in front of a judge and not be noticed by anyone but the survivor,” Amanda Pyron with the Network Advocating Against Domestic Violence said on Tuesday. “Appearing remotely, you’ve got distance, the survivor can be in another physical location; the person accused of causing harm can be in the courtroom or in another location; and so, it does diminish the person causing harms ability to intimidate the survivor.”
Other large population counties, such as Champaign, Sangamon, and Macon counties, fall just shy of the population requirements, though Senate Democrats suggested those counties could offer the online options if they wish.
“When survivors are in need of protection, they often hesitate because of the trauma it stirs up or fears of being stopped by their abuser,” state senator Steve Stadelman (D-Rockford) said.
His colleague, state senator John Connor (D-Joliet) prosecuted domestic violence cases in Will County.
“I was often able to see how if a victim was able to navigate the court system well, they had a good outcome,” Connor said, “and the victims who were unable to navigate well oftentimes would end up suffering as a result of additional steps that they needed to take.”
Ward said, “Often survivors are unable to attend in person hearings for protective orders due to travel limitations, childcare issues, or fears of potentially seeing their attackers in person.”
The measure cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday passed with unanimous support in the Senate on Wednesday.