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Domestic Violence and COVID-19: Bringing Awareness During the Pandemic 

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and needs support, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233, or visit www.thehotline.org.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month — a time for survivors and advocates to promote greater awareness and education around the prevalence of domestic violence in the United States.

Domestic violence (also referred to as intimate partner violence, or IPV), is an unfortunately common experience for many Americans. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:

  • 10 million people a year are physically abused by an intimate partner.
  • Intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crime.
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking during their lifetime.
  • On a typical day, more than 20,000 phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.
  • 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year, with 90% of these children being eyewitnesses to this violence.

Pandemics, economic recessions, natural disasters, and other crises can lead to increases in domestic violence for a variety of reasons. This year, the coronavirus pandemic has created several more barriers for individuals seeking a way out of these situations. Women and children are particularly vulnerable when disasters such as COVID-19 strike. Here are just a few of the reasons why this occurs.

More Time Spent at Home

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a worldwide shutdown of businesses and activities. The United States and other countries asked people to stay home whenever possible. This shutdown has helped slowed the spread of COVID-19, but also made life more dangerous for individuals who are abused by their intimate partners.

Women were in their homes with partners who might be abusive for longer periods and who now had more opportunities for violence, says Jhumka Gupta, ScD, associate professor in the department of global and community health at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

If domestic violence was already a problem in a relationship, the pandemic is most likely making the situation worse. Once stay-at-home orders were implemented, many domestic violence hotline organizations prepared for an increase in the demand for services. However, many organizations experienced the opposite — some regions saw a 50% drop in call volume. Experts in the field do not see this as an indication that domestic violence rates decreased, but rather that victims are unable to safely connect with services.

Financial Stress

Economic independence is critical in domestic violence prevention. For individuals who experience IPV, it can be increasingly difficult to leave a situation in which the abuser and the victim’s finances are intertwined, or when the abuser has total control of the victim’s finances. The pandemic has resulted in millions of lost jobs in the first half of 2020 and has especially affected women, people of color, and other marginalized groups.

In some instances, the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic has disconnected many individuals from community resources and support systems. These conditions may increase the risk for violence in families where it did not exist previously or worsen situations in homes where violence has been a problem.

Although some government programs helped beleaguered families, many people lost income. Additionally, the imbalance of wage-earning could cause stress and violence among intimate partners. “There might be economic abuse against women,” Gupta says. “If a woman still has an income, while the man does not, then that can also increase vulnerability to violence.”

Increased Isolation

The economic slowdown and implementation of stay-at-home orders due to the pandemic have cut off many individuals from their normal sources of social support. This increase in social insolation also adds stress to individuals and families as they lack the ability to participate in enjoyable and relaxing activities outside the home. Additionally, those who are abusive can monopolize on the increased isolation to keep power and control over their victim.

“Isolation is something that an abusive partner uses as an effective tool to keep women away from family and friends.” Gupta says. During the pandemic, an abusive partner does not have to work as hard to keep the victim from meeting with family members or friends who might notice bruises or hear about the abuse.

This is also true for children who are experiencing domestic violence. Mandated reporters of abuse, such as childcare providers, teachers, and clinicians, have fewer interactions with children and families and fewer opportunities to recognize, assess, and report signs of abuse in the home.

Scaled-Back Support Services

Public health restrictions to combat the pandemic also reduced access to alternative housing and other domestic violence resources. Shelters and hotels have had to reduce their capacity or shut down, while travel restrictions have also limited individuals’ abilities to find safe housing alternatives.

Mental health services, medical services, and other healthcare have also been scaled back. While the increase in access to telehealth services can make up for these losses, there is less opportunity to address possible cases of domestic violence. Even family planning clinics reduced or stopped in-person visits – clinicians’ eyes are simply not on those who might be experiencing domestic violence.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of services for domestic violence had to pivot, so there might be a lag,” Gupta notes. “So often, the healthcare provider might be the only person out there who has access to the woman. With the pandemic, there was a scaling back of resources in the healthcare setting…They were overwhelmed.” Gupta explains.

How Can Providers Help?

While there are several barriers to being able to access domestic violence and IPV services, clinicians and providers can still provide ways to help the individuals they serve:

  • Be aware of the limitations of telehealth services. Safely screening individuals for domestic violence may be more difficult, especially if their abuser is able to listen in on conversations.
  • Educate yourself on available community resources. Have these resources easily accessible so that you can quickly provide information if necessary.
  • If abuse is disclosed, establish safety signals to identify the presence of an abusive individual during telehealth appointments.
  • When it is safe to do so, review safety practices the individual can utilize. For example, deleting internet browsing history or text messages or saving domestic violence hotline numbers under other listings (such as a pharmacy name) can help prevent escalating violence from an abuser.

As we continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, there is still opportunity to raise awareness of domestic violence in your communities. Clinicians and providers can still help those experiencing domestic violence, even if the path to safety and recovery are made more challenging.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and needs support, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233, or visit www.thehotline.org


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