Each year in the United States, nearly 12 million people are the victims of some form of intimate partner violence (IPV) or domestic abuse. Under normal circumstances, IPV is an incredibly difficult public health and socio-judicial issue to address – by nature IPV is “behind closed doors,” and thus, stigma, shame and embarrassment, as well as concerns over safety and privacy, often prohibits individuals experiencing abuse from seeking help. The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to exacerbate this issue by not only increasing the incidence of IPV, but also by adding new challenges and complexities to how services for both victims and their abusers are delivered. In this post, we explore the immediate impact of COVID-19 on IPV rates, the way the pandemic has altered, and in some cases decreased access to, services for victims and perpetrators, and the potential long term implications COVID-19 has on future IPV trends.
Increase in IPV rates
Previous research on natural disasters and other pandemics has shown that IPV rates inevitably increase during emergency events and early indicators suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Early reports show a marked increase in IPV incidence, particularly within the first few months of the pandemic, with some cities showing a double digit increase in 911 calls for domestic violence; however, as the pandemic enters into its eighth month, projections from past research on IPV during emergency states suggests that such spikes will continue as countries contend with the long term-economic and other implications of the pandemic.
Increases in IPV during COVID-19, therefore, are thought to be related to several factors. First, for families already experiencing IPV in the home, COVID-19 related stressors (e.g. fear of contagion, job loss, housing instability, etc.) can increase tensions and place greater strains on already fragile relationships. Second, statewide COVID-19 shelter-in-place mandates also increase stress within the household as families struggle to adapt to living all aspects of their lives under one roof. Even as states open and mandatory shelter-in-place orders are lifted, work from home orders, layoffs/changes in familial employment, and remote schooling have forced many families to continue to stay at home. Third, social distancing measures may further serve to isolate victims, increase the amount of time they spend with their abuser, and decrease their ability to find safe and viable outlets for what they are experiencing at home – all of which can increase the incidence and severity of abuse, which in turn raises victims’ risk for injury.
Changes in victims’ services
COVID-19 has also impacted how services for IPV victims are delivered. Most alarmingly, perhaps, is the impact that the pandemic has on victims’ ability to access hotline or other crises intervention services. Here again, shelter-in-place and continued time spent at home, make it challenging for victims to seek help; victims may be unable (due to constant monitoring from their partner) or unwilling (for fear of being overheard) to call a crises center. Victims may also be reluctant to seek medical attention, for IPV or otherwise, during the pandemic for fear of contracting the virus in health care settings – a primary location for IPV screening, detection and service referral. Abusers may use COVID-19 to control their victims and prohibit them from seeking help from health care providers, citing concerns over the victim’s risk of being infected in such contexts.
Crises centers, women’s shelters, and health care providers have struggled to devise and employ different strategies to help reach victims through apps and other measures that allow victims to contact IPV services without risk of being discovered by their partner. The use of “text to chat” apps, for example, allows victims to text crises hotlines and get connected with services and help, though such strategies are not always “fail proof” and victims must have access to cell phones and/or the internet to use them.
Additionally, COVID-19 has also reduced the number of people shelters can house at any given time. Prior to the pandemic, shelters could easily room unrelated residents, and those without children, in a shared room. With new social distancing guidelines in place, and in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and protect shelter residents who may be immunocompromised, shelters have had to either decrease the number of residents they accept or house victims in a hotel for a duration. For victims, being in a hotel away from the community support of the shelter, can further increase feelings of isolation and stigma associated with IPV. Furthermore, providing hotel rooms for victims places a strain on many shelters’ already limited financial resources, and such agencies may find themselves faced with the choice of servicing less victims, or reducing the number of services they can provide overall.
COVID-19 and perpetrator interventions
The pandemic also has consequences for the socio-judicial response to IPV, and particularly, for how perpetrators are held accountable for abuse. More than 80% of perpetrators who are arrested for domestic violence crimes are court-mandated to what are known as batterer intervention programs (BIPs). BIPs are guided by two key principles: 1) victim safety and 2) perpetrator accountability. Such programs typically use an in-person group format; the belief is that group work allows BIP clients to confront each other on their abusive behaviors and share their experiences, reduces the sense of isolation and stigma around IPV, and can help to avoid the pitfall of collusion with perpetrators that may occur in other therapeutic contexts. During the pandemic, many BIP providers have been forced to switch to phone or videoconferencing formats to deliver interventions, both of which can be problematic. Perpetrators engaging in interventions over the phone or through videoconferencing may be easily overheard by their victims, other members of their household, and/or if using group video format, by individuals in other BIP attendees’ homes; thus, potentially reducing perpetrators willingness to talk openly about their abuse. Additionally, victims living with their abusive partner may have no choice but to sit in the same room or space with their abuser during their court-mandated BIP sessions, and this in turn may heighten a victim’s sense of fear and/or re-victimize them as the perpetrator discusses his abusive behaviors.
Impact on criminal justice response to IPV
COVID-19 has also influenced the effectiveness of the criminal justice system response to IPV due to the various precautions and protocols to promote public safety. Law enforcement departments were forced to develop new tactics and procedures for appropriate responses to calls for service. As outlined in a post by Zajac, Keager, and Sterner, many departments developed policies focusing on social distancing to provide protection for the officers responding, while other departments focused their efforts towards mitigating the risk of exposure by reducing the contact with potentially infected individuals. These precautions have led to a decrease in police interventions, particularly proactive policing policies. As protective policies became more restrictive with the use of shelter-in-place orders and increases in telecommuting or virtual workplaces, the need for effective policing became a paramount concern as more individuals were staying indoors.
There are mixed results for the impact of policing and calls for service related to domestic violence and IPV. Initial reports of calls for service related to partner violence indicate overall calls remained similar to previous years but with a greater irregularity in trends for these calls (Ashby, 2020). The irregularity of calls and high frequency of underreporting leads to increased barriers for law enforcement to respond, which is often the first step in safeguarding the victim. Furthermore, by following social distancing guidelines and other protective measures, law enforcement officers may be hesitant to enter a household, instead choosing to take statements in an outdoor setting. This drastically changes the traditional approach of policing, especially regarding reports of domestic disputes, where it is common to enter the home and separate individuals during questioning.
The difficulties of responding to domestic calls for service is further compounded by deploying law enforcement officers during protests and marches, limiting the available officers for service calls. This has led to an increase in overtime where officers are generally overworked and, in some jurisdictions, not adequately staffed to respond to every call for service in a reasonable timeframe. This presents an even greater risk for victims of domestic violence and IPV as officers are simply not available at the time of the call. Similar issues are found within the court system as safety protocols and the use of protective measures have caused delays in hearings. Most courtrooms are now equipped with plastic barriers to prevent the spread of airborne particles or have pivoted to remote hearings. These protective measures may deter victims from following through with criminal proceedings as they create situations where victims may experience undue hardships. These can manifest by providing details of their victimization loudly enough for the judge to hear, or attending virtual hearings where they may not be aware of who is present off screen. Both of which can potentially cause increased trauma, and/or a reduced sense of privacy for victims.
COVID-19 will also likely have long term impacts on IPV. One of the most concerning is the potential the pandemic is creating for future increases in IPV. Research shows that one of the main risk factors for becoming either a perpetrator or victim of IPV is having witnessed or been the victim of violence as a child. Reduced services for victims and perpetrators translates into fewer opportunities to interrupt and break the cycle of violence in families; this is coupled with the fact that shelter in place, social distancing, and many of the other issues have increased the amount of time children are spending in home during the pandemic. Children are now attending school from home and many extracurricular activities for children outside of the home have been canceled or shifted to a remote format. This means that in households where IPV is occurring, children are at a greater risk of exposure to IPV by being in the home more often with the perpetrator, thus increasing their risk for later perpetration or victimization. Experts warn as well that COVID-19 will likely increase rates of teen dating violence as adolescents and young adults are also spending more time at home.
IPV rates will likely continue on the same trajectory as the country continues grappling with public health policies and increased concern over the impact of safely moving forward during COVID-19. This presents a unique, yet challenging, opportunity for those involved in IPV service provision as they navigate the needs of victims and the potential for decreased resources. There are legislative bills designed to assist victim service providers, such as justice reinvestment policies and other grant-based mechanisms, which can reduce the burden that these agencies face while trying to protect victims. However, most of these agencies remain underfunded and lack the resources needed to provide adequate services to victims of IPV. As we learn more about the virus that has undoubtedly changed our lives, we must also consider the ways in which this virus impacts others, specifically victims or potential victims.