At the start of the pandemic, many experts warned that the isolation could contribute to a rise in domestic violence. Nearly a year later, a February meta-analysis published by the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice found that domestic violence incidents in the United States rose by about 8 percent in 2020.
The researchers linked this to the pandemic lockdowns, which may have put survivors in proximity with their harm-doer for extended periods. They also believe pandemic-related economic impacts, like job loss, financial insecurity and higher caregiving responsibilities, contributed to this increase.
The psychological and economic impacts of the pandemic can increase stress in the harm-doer, and they may turn more often to alcohol and drugs to cope, according to Emily Rothman, professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health who researches intimate partner violence. Violence and abuse likely follow as a result, she said.
Over the last 14 months, domestic violence advocates have been forced to quickly restructure the way they support survivors to adhere to public health jurisdictions, Rothman said. In that time, there have been mistakes, as well as lessons learned, according to domestic violence researchers and activists.
Here are some of their takeaways about how to better support victims of domestic violence during a pandemic.
With the increase in violence during a pandemic, experts say it is prudent to set up safeguards for survivors who choose to leave their abusive situation.
Are bank systems set up to allow a survivor to flee safely and build a life of their own? Sonya Passi, a domestic violence activist and founder and chief executive of the survivor advocacy nonprofit FreeFrom, believes they need improvement.
For example, Passi said, she worked with a survivor who fled and requested her debit card to be mailed to her new address. But the bank’s protocol was to send a letter to her old address — where she faced an abusive situation — to ask her to confirm the change. Passi said that 52 percent of survivors that her organization has surveyed “do not have safe access to a bank account, and a big part of that is their harm-doer monitoring their financial activity via their bank accounts.”
Even now, banks can start to consider the experience of survivors and create safer banking for them, Passi argued. FreeFrom released 11 guidelines for banks at the beginning of 2020, which includes recommendations such as keeping survivors’ contact information secure and designating an internal team to handle survivors’ accounts.
FreeFrom also surveyed about 1,300 survivors during the pandemic and found that their top three needs to get to safety were cash assistance, utility bill relief, and credit and debt relief.
“The reality is safety is expensive,” Passi said. “The number one obstacle to safety is financial insecurity.”
Survivors who plan to leave abusive environments often build up their financial resources over months or years. A nationwide emergency like a pandemic can put a sudden halt to their revenue stream, according to Passi. For example, she said, she worked with a mother who would bake and sell baked goods to earn money while her harm-doer was at work, and when this source of income abruptly ended in 2020, her plan to leave was also delayed.
In January , the Biden-Harris administration released a plan to address violence against women, pledging $5 billion in cash grants for survivors via community organizations. Passi said that if the administration “makes good on this pledge, that will be the single most helpful thing I think our federal government has ever done for survivors.”
Employers and health insurance companies also play a role, according to Passi: Companies can ensure survivors don’t lose their jobs when they take leave to flee or seek health care, and insurance companies can provide plans to cover medical treatments related to intimate partner violence, so survivors don’t need to bear the cost of recovering from harm inflicted by someone else.
At the height of the pandemic, in-person judicial operations were halted or reduced to adhere to public health advice. Between states, there was variation in how long states limited in-person operations, with some enforcing closures until the end of 2020.
By September 2020, all federal appellate courts and at least 86 of the 94 district courts conducted some court hearings virtually. But while virtual hearings can have advantages, particularly if a survivor lives rurally or does not have access to transportation, it may not be the best ongoing solution, according to Boston University’s Rothman.
To begin with, not everyone has proper Internet access. And even if they did, it still poses challenges. Rothman and her colleagues interviewed survivors during the pandemic and found that it was difficult for survivors to mind their children while participating in a court hearing. “It was also a little bit harder to iron out details related to child support payments, or visitation and custody over Zoom,” she said.
Virtual court can also diminish some of the benefits of having a domestic violence advocate present. Usually, when an advocate attends court in-person, they are able to talk survivors through the courtroom experience and remind them of details they may miss, Rothman said. But over a video call, this can be more difficult to do effectively, or may not happen at all.
There’s also the issue of being unable to guarantee survivor safety before, during or after the virtual hearing. In March, video of a Zoom hearing for a domestic violence case went viral after it became clear that the defendant was tuning in from the home of his alleged victim.
Before the pandemic, survivors may have found in-person support from others in a number of ways: They may have been able to alert their doctor or therapist about an unsafe situation at home during appointments, or received support from family or friends, their child’s teachers, or other parents who may have helped look after their child, Rothman said.
Stay-at-home orders changed how survivors were able to keep in contact with their support networks. For example, survivors may not feel comfortable asking their therapist or doctor for help over a virtual appointment at home, with their harm-doer in the next room, Rothman said.
She added that many domestic violence service providers knew the risk of survivors losing in-person social connections and quickly changed how they maintained contact with survivors.
But this role can go beyond domestic violence service agencies, according to Rothman: “Testing sites, or private appointments, where only one person is allowed inside, are opportunities [for health-care workers] to ask people about whether or not they are safe at home, and to provide resources safely.”
Likewise, friends and family can find new ways to maintain in-person connection with the survivor without arousing the harm-doer’s suspicion, such as inviting them for regular outdoor walks or meeting at the supermarket.
In a study on domestic violence safety planning during the covid-19 pandemic, researchers extracted relevant strategies from existing articles and an expert panel, as well as asked more than 100 survivors and providers to rank these from most to least recommended during a pandemic. Nick Metheny, an assistant professor at the University of Miami and one of the authors of the paper, explained that while they found some safety strategies remained helpful — such as maintaining social connections, packing an emergency kit with copies of important documents and using distancing techniques in the home — others needed to be modified for a stay-at-home situation. For example, some of the interviewed survivors reported that hiding alcohol and drugs (which may be triggers for violence) could incite more violence.
The survivors also reported that it may be safer to continue calling their support networks if they did so pre-pandemic, instead of switching to texting or emailing, which could arouse more suspicion. Survivors also highlighted the importance of increasing their safety online by deleting text messages and other online activity records and changing passwords to all accounts more frequently.
Understanding cultural expectations and differences is important to reaching a greater number of survivors, according to experts.
For example, Kavita Mehra, executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women, said that when stay-at-home orders took effect, the organization heard from some survivors who were guilted by family or community members into allowing the harm-doer to live under the same roof again.
“It’s indicative of how there is this social pressure of duty in the [South Asian] community we work with, coupled with this laying on of shame onto the survivor as if it is theirs to hold, which it is not, and expecting them to provide safety for the person who has inflicted harm on them,” Mehra said.
Because Sakhi is led by survivors from the South Asian diaspora, they understand how difficult it can be for a woman to navigate these pressures and can offer them support that is tactful and culturally sensitive, according to Mehra.
In other words, Mehra said, where possible, mainstream service providers should continue to work cooperatively with culturally specific providers so that survivors can be better prepared for cultural issues that may emerge during a public health emergency.