MEMPHIS, Tennessee — During the pandemic, domestic violence cases have surged in Shelby County. Mayor Lee Harris hopes a slight policy change can help victims seek help.
“I think our community had a domestic violence problem before the pandemic," Harris said. "I think unfortunately it has worsened because of the job loss, the threats of the eviction, because all of things happening with families.”
Harris is hoping a "safe leave" policy can be the standard for all Shelby County government employees.
So far, it has passed through a personnel committee. Harris hopes it will pass through the next challenge: Shelby County Commission.
“We’re trying to find ways to expand protections for domestic violence victims so what we’ve gone in and done is update our policies and procedures in Shelby County government to say if any of our employees face domestic violence that they can use sick leave and our leave policies to take care of what they need to take care of," Harris said.
The current sick leave policy allows employees to take time off for a mental or physical illness, personal injury or health condition.
It also allows time off for routine, diagnosis and preventive medical treatments that cannot be scheduled outside of work hours.
“Victims of domestic violence need to get away from the perpetrator and that means they’ve got to find a new place to live, they’ve got to enroll their kids into new schools, in many cases, and in some cases they need to even make their identity anonymous," Harris said.
The "safe leave" policy proposed would allow time for employees to seek services from a domestic violence shelter or rape crisis center, time to apply for Tennessee's Safe at Home Address Confidentiality Program, meet with an attorney or social services, file a complaint or report with police, meet with the District Attorney's office, and/or enroll their child in a new school.
Sandy Bromley, Shelby County Crime Victims & Rape Crisis Center Executive Director, was consulted on the policy. She said it's important to give victims both time to recover mentally while physically taking steps to protect themselves.
“There’s a wide variety of things that have to happen and often times it needs to happens during the work day so it’s really important to have that covered to allow victims the time to heal," Bromley said.
Harris describes a job with the county as a desirable one with perks, so desirable that people may put that job ahead of their own safety.
“A lot of our employees would be fearful of putting their job in jeopardy just to take care of some of these things so we want to relieve some of that anxiety, some of that fear, to say if you’re a domestic violence victim, and you’re trying to get to a safe place, we understand," he said.
Bromley said they've heard that same concern from victims they've served.
“They feel like they can’t come for counseling, or that they can’t come for an order of protection during the work day because they’re afraid they’re going to lose their position," she said.
That's why the center expanded its hours to try and serve more people outside of the workday.
Bromley hopes other workplaces would adapt a similar policy to make it clear to employees that they can take time to heal.
Another reason Harris is advocating for the policy change is to prevent future crime. He said a large chunk of crime in the county is tied to domestic violence.
“We cannot reduce our murder rate unless we are lasered focused on trying to provide protections against domestic violence," Harris said. "Domestic violence often, way too often, becomes domestic violence homicide.”
For help, contact the Shelby County Crime Victims & Rape Crisis Center at (901) 222-3950 between 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
All services are free and confidential.
For the 24-Hour Sexual Assault Hotline, call 901-222-4350.