As COVID-19 spread across the globe, ravaging a path of illness and death, public health and government officials championed shelter-in-place orders to provide a safe haven away from the virus.
But months later, preliminary data shows that the lockdown orders had the opposite effect on one particular demographic: Victims of intimate partner violence who were trapped at home with their abusers.
UNLV Greenspun College of Urban Affairs professor Gillian M. Pinchevsky studies criminal justice, community, and college responses to violence against women.
While many states have begun implementing reopening plans, Pinchevsky says the risk to victims of abuse isn’t over — especially as experts predict a second wave of the virus to sweep the United States in the fall.
Here, Pinchevsky explains the factors behind the reported spike in domestic abuse reports, and ways everyday citizens can help protect victims in the future.
How has the pandemic impacted victims of domestic abuse?
Even without a global pandemic, victims of domestic abuse face many barriers to seeking help, whether it is help from police, assistance from community-based social service providers, or even informal support from friends or family. When you add in a pandemic and stay-at-home mandates, help-seeking becomes even more difficult.
Under normal circumstances, there may have been times when a victim of domestic abuse might have been able to leave the house to go to school, to go to work, to run errands, or when a perpetrator of domestic abuse was not at home. During these opportunities, victims of domestic abuse may have been able to seek help – whether by formal (like police or a shelter) or informal (like friends or family) means.
However, with stay-at-home mandates, social distancing efforts, and with widespread concern over contracting COVID-19, the opportunities to be away from one’s abuser – particularly if they live together – are far more limited. We’d therefore expect help-seeking efforts during a lock-down to decrease and incidents to increase.
Is there data showing whether domestic abuse cases have risen during the pandemic?
Early information — from police calls for service, to hotline calls, to some early social science research — indicates yes. More rigorous social science studies will be possible only when more data is available; however, it is definitely safe to say that domestic abuse is a major concern during the pandemic.
We know from the long-standing social science literature that there are a lot of factors that impact the likelihood of violence in a relationship; unfortunately, some of those have been compounded by the pandemic. Two prominent – albeit certainly not exhaustive – examples are economics and alcohol. As a result of widespread company budget cuts, layoffs, and general economic instability due to COVID-19, financial concerns and unemployment rates have risen. Alcohol has long been regarded as a risk factor for domestic violence. Although it is still unclear the specific role that alcohol plays in domestic violence situations, it is very clear that alcohol is involved in many incidents. We know alcohol sales have increased during COVID-19. So, economic strain, coupled with alcohol, frustrations, overall psychological distress, and the lack of opportunity for a victim to leave a potentially volatile situation is a bad combination when talking about domestic violence.
What are some creative ways that social service agencies have adapted to helping victims of domestic abuse during the global quarantine?
Not everyone will choose to contact law enforcement. And quite frankly, for some forms of abuse – such as psychological abuse – the system is more limited in what it is able to do.
For those who choose to contact community-based social service providers, those providers continued to provide services to victims of domestic abuse during COVID-19. Some of the help-seeking options used by these providers is particularly useful when someone may not be able to leave the home as usual. For example, since early 2019, SafeNest has provided text and online chat options through their hotline in addition to the traditional phone hotline. In response to concerns about rising incidences of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of Nevada has partnered with Uber to provide victims of domestic and sexual abuse with free rides to local shelters.
With all of that said, I think it is also important to remember that a victim of domestic abuse is going to be more likely to disclose to friends and family than a more formal institution or service provider. So, it’s time for us to listen and support in whatever ways that person needs. Domestic abuse is a very real issue in our community.
How is the pandemic likely to affect long-term progress toward ending domestic violence?
The long-term impact of COVID-19 on domestic abuse remains to be seen. But what we do know without a doubt is that victims have experienced it, children have witnessed or been subjected to it, and communities are hurting because of it. As stay-at-home orders are being lifted across the country, we are likely to hear about many more incidents of domestic abuse that occurred when people were in quarantine. But we cannot assume that domestic abuse is going away simply because stay-at-home orders have lifted. It isn’t.
We know that many millions of people across the country have reported being victimized by an intimate partner during their lifetime. Domestic abuse is a serious and significant issue whether we are in a pandemic or not. We need to pay attention and take action to address domestic abuse during a pandemic. And we need to make sure we are also paying attention and taking action when the quarantine is lifted, when things go back to “normal.” We need to be prepared for addressing the needs of victims now, and we need to be prepared for other situations that can further increase rates of domestic abuse and reduce opportunities for victims’ help-seeking – like another wave of COVID-19 or a natural disaster such as a hurricane or flood.
Ensuring that those affected receive the support – in whichever way they choose to receive it – is paramount. Working towards prevention before an incident occurs, and bettering our responses after an incident occurs, will continue to guide our efforts.
What are lessons learned from this unprecedented spike in domestic abuse cases, and how can the government, social service agencies, and people help going forward?
Moving forward, we have a lot of things that we have learned and can continue thinking about in the event of another wave of coronavirus. I’ll highlight three important ones.
The first is remembering that, although staying home is considered a safety precaution from the virus, home isn’t a safe place for everyone. Social distancing is definitely a mechanism to reduce the transmission of the virus, but in relationships affected by violence, it can compound an already bad situation. Thinking about the unintended potential consequences of these precautionary moves can help us think through best preventative or response strategies to domestic abuse during a pandemic or any situation that puts restrictions on our everyday lives.
The second is that safety plans should be continuously re-evaluated to ensure that they consider contingencies if a person is unable to leave the home due to stay-at-home mandates, curfews, or other restrictions. We should reconsider the ways that victims of domestic abuse can seek help from the police or community service providers. Since it may be difficult for someone to ensure their privacy in the home, seeking help may be achievable through private chat boxes online, text messages, or some kind of an app. Relatedly, continued community-based efforts to increase safe housing options for victims of domestic abuse is centrally important every day – pandemic or no pandemic.
Finally, I cannot emphasize enough that people are far more likely to tell a friend or family member about their victimization than the police or a service provider. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to think about how it might be affecting those closest to us – our family, friends, neighbors – and equip ourselves with the knowledge and skills for best providing support. That involves listening to the victim, understanding that person’s needs, respecting their decisions; it involves not blaming them, not further isolating them. It’s not always easy to be there for someone, but it is necessary.