In a year when New York state faces a $15 billion budget deficit and a greater demand for basic services, advocates for survivors of domestic violence say they are pleased that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is also prioritizing their concerns.
Among other proposals, Cuomo said he will ask the state Legislature to make it more difficult for people who are charged with a serious domestic violence-related misdemeanor to get a gun license.
There is a provision in the current state law to disqualify some abusers from obtaining a New York gun license, but Cuomo said the process is cumbersome.
The governor wants to close the loophole by creating a domestic violence misdemeanor label for certain abuse-related crimes.
"Sometimes these cases don't rise to a felony, so these pretty significant misdemeanors ... not having these offenders have access to guns is huge because if there are weapons involved, the lethality goes way up," said Mary Whittier, interim CEO of RESOLVE of Greater Rochester, a domestic abuse treatment center.
Another of Cuomo's proposals would allow courts to require abusers to pay for damages to homes, moving expenses, and other costs related to domestic violence.
Whittier said finances are one of the biggest barriers for survivors trying to escape an abusive relationship.
"The survivor is expected to pay that on top of other bills when they may not even be working," she explained, "because maybe they were not allowed to work because of such controlling behavior."
Cuomo announced last week that the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence will now be called the Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence.
Alison Francis-Lord, director of advocacy services at Willow Domestic Violence Center, said the new name acknowledges the broad scope of survivors' experiences.
"That expansion is more inclusive in recognizing the experiences of the LGBTQ+ population, in that relationships aren't always a cisgender, heterosexual man and woman," she said. "All types of people experience violence."
Cuomo said the stark rise in domestic violence and gender-based violence is one of the most horrific results of the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2020, Willow had a 16% increase in calls to its crisis and support hotline and RESOLVE saw a 40% surge in demand for its services.
Whittier said some of the requests for counseling services came from professionals such as teachers, nurse practitioners, and other health care workers.
"What they're struggling with is when work used to be a reprieve -- because home was not -- now, 'I'm working on a COVID floor.' Now, 'I'm working so many hours in a nursing home.' So, there's no safe place anyways because you're dealing with the violence at home with your offender and then you're dealing with this whole pandemic."
Some clients, Whittier added, have continued requesting counseling sessions even after they completed RESOLVE's program.
She said it has been challenging for people to transfer their care to a community-based therapist because their services are in such great demand during the pandemic.