CHICAGO – Three weeks after Esmeralda De Luna got an order of protection against the father of her four children, he returned to their apartment in Villa Park, Illinois, and stabbed her to death while their children were in the home in May, according to records and her family.
“We tried to help her but we couldn’t save her,” said Leobardo Loza, De Luna’s brother.
De Luna was 24, and though she tried to leave her abusive partner several times, she returned to him time and again believing he would change, Loza said. The two had been together since she was 13.
The young mother’s death was part of a spike in domestic violence cases in communities of color in Illinois that coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say. Even as calls to Chicago police regarding domestic violence decreased in 2020, the number of calls to a state hotline for people seeking help escaping domestic abuse increased.
At the same time, the number of domestic violence homicides in Chicago nearly doubled from 33 in 2019 to 62 in 2020, according to Chicago police data. While criminal justice experts caution a one-year increase can simply be an anomaly, they also often cite data on homicides as most indicative of overall crime trends, because the number of reported killings is largely unaffected by variables such as police staffing levels and the willingness of victims to pursue charges or make complaints.
A Tribune analysis of data from advocates and law enforcement shows what advocates believe is a pandemic-related upswing in domestic violence.
More than 80% of those killed were Black, with the second-largest group of those killed being Latino, according to a new report set to publish in late June by The Network, a coalition of organizations that provide gender-based violence services in Chicago.
After a year of police brutality protests, the report also highlights how the group believes increasing mistrust in law enforcement has made it harder for domestic violence victims to seek help. The Network’s report documents a 6% increase in calls from Chicagoans to the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline, while Chicago police data shows that its reports of all domestic-related violent crimes fell 9%.
The Network’s report has a slightly lower number for 2019 deaths, because two deaths were later classified by police as domestic-related after the group gathered its figures for that year, according to a police spokesman. But each set of data showed similar trends of how increasingly dangerous life has become during the pandemic for victims of domestic violence like Luevenia Gardner.
Last month, Gardner’s husband, from the South Deering neighborhood, admitted that he poured gasoline on his wife and lit her on fire, leading to her death, according to prosecutors. Henry Taylor, 31, is charged with first-degree murder in Gardner’s May 21 death, after the 35-year-old woman was injured April 16 at their home, officials said.
While she was being taken to the hospital, Gardner told a paramedic that she had known her husband was going to kill her, and she should have left him a long time ago, prosecutors said.
Olivia Farrell, advocacy and policy manager at The Network, said stay-at-home orders and economic hardships caused by the pandemic could be two factors in the increase of domestic violence in the last year.
The pandemic appears to have both fueled more domestic abuse and driven demand for ways to escape abusers. Most callers to the state hotline needed shelter or a safe place to go, but shelters often were at capacity, Farrell said. Others needed financial assistance.
“We are deeply worried about what the last year could have caused people living with an abusive partner and the trauma the children have endured,” said Neusa Gaytan, vice president of Mujeres Latinas en Accion, an advocacy program serving Spanish-speaking immigrants in abusive relationships.
Families of color in the Chicago area experienced domestic abuse at higher rates than whites, the data suggests, but Farrell, echoing longtime research on domestic violence, said that cases are often underreported.
Nearly 50% of survivors who contacted the hotline were Black, with nearly 20% of them Hispanic or Latino.
Gaytan said that nonwhite survivors often experience more severe cases of domestic violence because cultural and institutional barriers make leaving a partner more challenging.
That was the case for De Luna, said her brother Loza, who is now taking care of the three children who were in the apartment when prosecutors say their father killed their mother.
In Mexico, Marco-Antonio Rubio, 25, had abused De Luna constantly and even threatened De Luna’s mother when she asked for help, so she often kept to herself and isolated herself and her children, Loza said.
Just a year and a half ago, De Luna and Rubio arrived in the United States with their three younger children under political asylum, with De Luna “believing that Rubio would take care of them,” he said.
He didn’t, Loza said.
De Luna decided to take legal action against Rubio recently because he was becoming “severely abusive against the children,” Loza said. In early May, court records show De Luna obtained an order of protection against Rubio. It was a final attempt to save herself and her children, Loza said.
Rubio is charged with first-degree murder in De Luna’s stabbing the night of May 18 at an apartment in the 3000 block of North Princeton Drive in Villa Park, the DuPage County state’s attorney’s office said in a news release at the time he was charged.
When police arrived, they found a trail of blood in the living room that led to De Luna, who was in the kitchen with an 8-inch butcher knife in her leg and what appeared to be stab wounds to her torso, the release said.
Children identified by Loza as Ashley, 6, Rubi, 3, and Erick, 1, were found in the apartment. Their older brother Marco Fabian, 11, was not at the home because he lives in Mexico.
De Luna died the next morning.
On May 25, her family, dressed in embroidered traditional Mexican clothing, made their farewell to De Luna at Funeraria Sagrada Familia.
De Luna’s body was buried in her native town of Michoacán, Mexico, on May 27, where her older son could pay his last respects.
“We’re in so much pain,” Loza said. “But we want to share my sister’s story so that other women get the courage to leave or ask for help; we also want justice and that her partner pays for the harm he has caused.”
Gaytan said victims of domestic violence often try to hide the abuse because they are ashamed of their situation or worried they would not be able to support their children alone.
Victims who are immigrants also face specific challenges because of language barriers and financial hardship. Many simply don’t know where to seek help other than from law enforcement, “but they also don’t trust the police,” Gaytan said.
While a call to the police can help de-escalate a situation immediately, it doesn’t make for long-term relief for the victim, Gaytan added.
Latinos and other immigrant victims often prefer to stay silent because of their immigration status, she said. Many domestic abuse victims of color also prefer not to call police because of mistrust.
Of those who called the hotline, 90% said they did not want to call the police, according to The Network’s report. Meanwhile, in 2020, the number of to Chicago Police Department domestic violence-related calls decreased by nearly 20% from 2019.
“When women — or men — experiencing abuse do not feel safe calling the police and the victims cannot access another type of help or services, they are forced to stay, and that puts them at a higher risk of abuse or even death,” Gaytan said.
Benna Crawford, head of the children and families group with Legal Aid Chicago, said the pandemic also has added roadblocks for survivors trying to access the court system to get immediate protection from their aggressors because of a lack of in-person services.
Many of the people of color experiencing domestic violence do not have web access or know how to seek help through the internet. And access to attorneys and domestic violence advocates who know how to work through the system to get civil orders of protection or other help was also limited.
While domestic violence affects all races, Gaytan said Latino culture is fueled by a deeply rooted machismo culture and other conservative values that tie the victims — even men — to their aggressors.
“There are a lot of roadblocks to get some of these survivors the help they need; we should be working to remove those roadblocks and not add more,” Crawford said.
Maria Ordaz, of the Back of the Yards neighborhood, said she experienced domestic and sexual abuse from former partners until she had to move Chicago from California a few years ago.
Ordaz, a mother of four, began to worry for her safety and the safety of her 16-year-old daughter after a neighbor began to harass the girl about a year ago.
Ordaz reached out to police multiple times and was able to finally get an emergency order of protection against the neighbor the day after Memorial Day weekend, thanks to the team at Legal Aid.
“I do not want my daughter to go through what I did,” Ordaz said. “I don’t want her to feel like she has to run away from any men trying to hurt her.”
She was only able to reach domestic violence advocates and connect with Crawford after she had surgery and told her story to a hospital counselor.
“Everything our client went through to get an attorney and an order protection goes to show how hard it is for some of these immigrants and women to color to get help,” Crawford said.
Although the pandemic exacerbated situations that lead to more severe cases of domestic violence, it also helped to identify the resources and the different approaches that advocates and organizations need to take to help survivors, Gaytan said.
“I continue to work in this field because I have hope that things get better; that we can teach our children to be better, to heal from trauma,” Gaytan said.
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