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Domestic Violence in the Time of COVID-19

By Renee Borghesi, LSW

Note: To reflect the statistical majority, this article uses language referring to male perpetrators and female survivors.

Six months ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages, research from several sources was correctly predicting that the number of domestic violence incidents would surge during lockdown. People were paying attention. According to a recent article, “Experts have characterized an ‘invisible pandemic’ of domestic violence during the COVID-19 crisis as a ‘ticking time bomb’ or a ‘perfect storm.’”

Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.

During the pandemic, we are experiencing loss. Many things are beyond our control and people are struggling with loss in all forms, including in-person connections, employment, financial stability, community resources, sports, and the freedom to walk outside the house without a mask. It’s a lot of stress and anxiety for anyone. But for perpetrators who depend on that sense of power and control, the situation can only exacerbate their reactions and behaviors.

Perpetrators may try to isolate or control their partners by denying them access to money, using food as a weapon, cutting off communication with friends and family, or tracking location by phone or GPS, among other methods. Isolation will be exacerbated by a crisis that encourages the public to stay at home with their family, making it the perfect opportunity for perpetrators to take complete control.

As it relates to using COVID-19 to their advantage, perpetrators may deny partners access to medical care, providing misinformation or shielding them from facts about the virus, or withholding disinfectants.

While quarantining and limited social contact are key to stopping the spread of the virus, they add another dangerous element for domestic violence survivors, who are isolated even further when they can’t see or talk to friends and family or access religious support systems. The perpetrator is now at home more and able to watch his partner more closely than ever before. Where once she perhaps could wait until the perpetrator went to work to make a phone call to a crisis hotline or attempt to leave to a safer place, now he is able to track every move she makes.

Strained Resources
There’s a nationwide dilemma within crisis services for families. Across the country, social service agencies are experiencing staff shortages and budget cuts. The resources used to help survivors, e.g., food banks, hotlines, legal advocates, and health care facilities, are struggling to stay open and properly staffed during the pandemic.

Shelters may not be accepting new clients and be forced to temporarily set them up in hotels or use other creative planning. Counselors or advocates who work with families may not be able to make visits to the home. Instead, they must rely on technology to intervene and provide services. This could be another safety roadblock if the perpetrator is in the next room listening to every word that the partner or child is saying. Additionally, not every household is able to afford or access the technology necessary to have those services, particularly in light of school and library closures.

It must be emphasized that children are facing increased exposure to violence in the home. Children who witness violence or hurt during an incident of domestic violence are already facing the effects of trauma. In addition, children are often used as a pawn by a perpetrator in their game of power and control.

It was recently reported that separated parents are using the pandemic to place further restrictions on their former partners. Indeed, according to several lawyers, there have been requests to change custody agreements to include rules about social distancing that encompass everything from preventing a person from dating anyone else to seeking help with childcare.

Where This Leaves Us
The pandemic has added another layer of complexity to domestic violence. The question often asked is “Why does she stay?” But that’s the wrong take. The real question is, “Why does he abuse her?”

Until that can be addressed, we need to focus on supporting survivors as best we can. There have been changes made during the pandemic. For example, counseling services are being offered over the phone or via video. The importance of simply talking to someone who believes you, as well as teaching coping skills, cannot be overstated.

Some courts have gone virtual to help the legal process progress. Protection orders—documents that may restrict a perpetrator’s access to the survivor and their children or require them to surrender firearms—are being served during times when courts are holding off on in-person hearings. Legal advocates are available to walk the survivor through the court process.

Safety planning and education are keys to prevention. There are tactics that can help the survivor keep some control, from recognizing the cycle of violence (i.e., tension building in the relationship, the abusive incident, then the honeymoon phase) to more tangible actions like keeping copies of important documents (e.g., ID, bank account information, and Social Security card).

That said, we can start educating and fostering conversations about healthy relationships early on. With all the changes that schools have endured during the pandemic, it is clear that creating curricula to fit the needs of the environment is possible. And with 26% of women and 15% of men experiencing intimate partner violence before the age of 18, the need for programs focusing on healthy relationships is considerable. Lastly, both teen and adult survivors can utilize numerous phone apps, such as Circle of 6, Aspire News, and MyPlan, that offer education, safety planning, and access to emergency contacts and services.

Domestic violence has been a serious crisis long before the pandemic. It has been ignored, downplayed, or hidden for far too long. Now that people are in their homes more than ever before, it is the perfect opportunity for a violent perpetrator to take complete control of their partner. October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. We need to give the issue the attention it deserves—not just this month, but every month—to protect survivors and their children.

— Renee Borghesi, LSW, a licensed social worker in Cleveland, works with families and children who have experienced domestic violence.