My family was just a handful of days into our new covid-19-fueled self-quarantine when my partner and I got into a fight over a missing phone charger. The issue got resolved shortly, but our petty argument was a reminder that the close quarters now demanded by a global pandemic can exacerbate even the smallest of tensions.
For some people, this will just mean an uptick in disagreements and irritation. But for others, particularly those who are living in homes with domestic violence, the consequences of self-isolation, self-quarantine or orders to stay home can be far more serious.
In China, where many regions had been quarantined for months but restrictions are now lifting, there have been notable increases in reports of domestic violence. And in the United States, Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, reports that her organization has already noticed a shift tied to the pandemic.
“We are seeing an increase among people mentioning coronavirus in their interaction with advocates,” she says. Perilous coronavirus-related situations include college students whose classes have moved online and who are now trapped at home with abusers, parents worried about children’s lack of access to the safety provided at school, and individuals who had been making plans to leave and are now worried about losing the financial ability to do so.
Domestic violence is a major issue in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that approximately 1 in 4 women and almost 1 in 10 men have experienced physical or sexual violence or stalking committed by an intimate partner.
“Isolation can create the opportunity for the abusive partner to escalate to other harmful behaviors,” writes Cesiah Guerra in an account shared by Breaking the Silence, a nonprofit that provides resources for survivors and posts their stories. Another woman writes, “One reason I stayed with this man was to protect my kids from being alone with him. I felt beaten down. I felt trapped financially, emotionally and physically. I was so weak. I felt isolated.”
Most experts agree that domestic abusers share certain characteristics. They tend to be controlling and manipulative. Many see themselves as victims, and male perpetrators often hold rigid beliefs about gender roles and their right as men to dominate family members. These attributes run deeper than a change of circumstances, no matter how dire, but circumstances like the pandemic we’re now experiencing can trigger and intensify the actions of those who are prone to violence. Several of the CDC-identified risk factors that make someone more likely to become an abuser — unemployment, economic stress, social isolation, lack of social support, overcrowding — are probable outcomes of the homebound conditions needed to slow the spread of covid-19.
“In a situation where someone feels like they are losing power and control — and domestic violence is rooted in power and control — abusive partners may become more frequent in their abuse,” Ray-Jones explains, “or the severity of the abuse may increase.”
Past instances of natural disaster and economic downturn have already been shown to increase domestic violence. According to a study about intimate partner violence and the Great Recession, “the rapid worsening of local economies in the Great Recession led to an increase in men’s controlling behavior toward their wives and romantic partners. This pattern aligns with a dynamic in which a loss of control in one domain (the economy) leads men to assert greater control in another domain (their intimate relationships).”
Given the isolation many will experience in the coming days and months, experts say that now more than ever, those living with abuse need to have safety plans. These are personalized, practical plans that include strategies for minimizing harm at any stage of a relationship, from cohabitation to the period after a survivor leaves an abuser, if possible. Kiersten Stewart, the director of public policy and advocacy at Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit working to end violence against women and children, emphasizes that while we are currently charting new territory with the coronavirus crisis, many of the current structural supports for domestic violence survivors remain intact.
“There is still help out there and we want to be sure survivors know that the National Domestic Hotline is open and they should call it,” Stewart says. Calling 911 is still an option. Shelters are struggling like everyone else to respond to the crisis, but in many places, she adds, they remain available “for someone who needs to get to safety.” And even as courts close down most operations, municipalities across the country have made provisions that allow emergency cases, such as orders of protection and domestic violence petitions, to be heard.
Still, for many people, leaving an abusive household may simply not be possible in the foreseeable future. For those who are in homes with abusers, Maureen Curtis, the vice president of criminal justice programs at Safe Horizon, an organization that aids survivors, suggests using any existing resources to stay as safe as possible.
She and her staff do a lot of “thinking outside the box for safety planning,” and she urges survivors to try to do the same. Everyday choices can be made strategically. For example, Curtis says, many survivors are aware of their abusive partner’s triggers or know how to find ways to leave the house when tensions rise. Others have a code word for children to call 911, and even try to avoid certain rooms in the home (such as those that contain knives).
“These are things that our clients do all the time,” says Curtis. “Sometimes they know purposefully that they are safety planning and that their actions are being done to keep themselves safe, and sometimes they don’t.”
She notes that if a survivor reaches out to a domestic violence organization — which can be done over the phone, by text, or online if in-person options are not available — a counselor can help identify such measures, brainstorm additional ideas and offer longer-term planning strategies.
Advocates, however, can only do so much. This pandemic has exposed gaps in our social safety net, such as substandard wages, minimal paid time off, health care tied to employment, and a lack of affordable housing and child care, all of which impose barriers to leaving an abusive household under the best of circumstances. While some cities are temporarily halting evictions and foreclosures, unemployment benefits are being expanded and the coronavirus stimulus package could put much-needed cash into Americans’ pockets, those remedies aren’t likely to be broad enough to protect all those in dangerous situations.
Social distancing and isolation appear to be the keys to slowing down the spread of covid-19, but those tactics are some of the riskiest for those living with domestic violence. It would be a real tragedy if an unintended consequence of “flattening the curve” is that we overlook other ways people, many of whom are women, can be harmed.
As Stewart from Futures Without Violence says, “home is not always a safe place,” so right now, “it is critically important that we provide support to survivors.”
Ellen Friedrichs is a health educator and writer living in New York. She is the author of “Good Sexual Citizenship.”