The Cook County Domestic Violence Court building in South Loop. Credit: Provided

CHICAGO — Cook County will soon offer expanded services to survivors of domestic abuse, allowing them to seek orders of protection at any time of day rather than just during business hours.

Currently, victims of domestic and gender-based violence can only request legal protection from their abusers during standard court hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays.

“Domestic violence is a 24/7 issue. It really is something that happens all hours of the day and night,” said Carol Gall, executive director of Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence agency that provides intervention, prevention and education programs citywide, with a focus on the West Side.

Beginning in April, the county will fund a 24/7 Domestic Violence Court that will empower victims to get assistance from court advocates and seek orders of protection no matter when the abuse happens.

The courts were criticized earlier this year for the limited window victims had to petition for emergency protections, Injustice Watch reported.

The expanded court services were developed at the urging of domestic violence organizations and victims services groups that called for making legal protection more accessible, said county Commissioner Dennis Deer. The legislation to establish the 24/7 Domestic Violence Court was sponsored by Deer alongside Commissioners Alma Anaya, John Daley and Larry Suffredin.

“There was no mechanism in place to do an emergency order of protection overnight,” Deer said. “If [a woman] was seeking resources to stay away from her abuser, she could not get an order of protection until the next day.”

The Cook County Board partnered with the advocate groups, the Chief Judge’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office and the Cook County Clerk’s Office to design the court expansion, Deer said.

Reported incidents of domestic violence have surged since the start of the pandemic. The Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline received 28,749 calls for help in 2020, a 16 percent increase over the previous year. The helpline also received 936 text messages, up from 37 messages calling for assistance in the previous year, according to data from the Network, a coalition of domestic violence advocates.

“Nobody is immune to it. It happens in households everywhere, whether you’re college-educated or not, whether you’re living Downtown or the West Side,” Deer said.

Many Chicago families are facing serious hardships due to the pandemic, like “loss of jobs, job security, loss of housing, which is being taken out on victims,” Deer said.

The social isolation caused by the pandemic is also a factor that may drive domestic violence, Gall said, since people are encouraged to stay home when possible.

“Home is supposed to be the safest place for people. But for victims of domestic violence, that’s not always true. And not having those additional outlets and social supports is really tough, too,” Gall said.

Economic strife has also worsened conditions for many who are in situations of domestic violence, Gall said.

“It’s just further compounded economic abuse and financial abuse, which we know is a huge factor and used as a source of manipulation by people who choose to abuse,” Gall said.

The expanded court hours will “be really critical to the safety” of survivors of domestic violence, Gall said. But there is always a need for more funding to “tackle domestic violence holistically” by supporting victims of domestic violence, educating young people about healthy relationships, and engaging with abusers to “break the cycle,” she said.

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