As people across the country scrambled to buy toilet paper and extra canned food, millions of them had an additional set of stresses: worrying about being forced to stay at home, unable to get away from their abuser.

Consider these possibilities:

What would you do if the only opportunity you had to seek help orlook onlineto learn how to make a safety plan was when your abuser left for work – and now they’renever leaving the house?

These are the kinds of problems that, as the nation locks down, havemeand my fellow domestic violence researchers worried about millions of Americans.Seattle Police Dept.?@SeattlePD

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A rising threat

Even before the pandemic, an average of20 people in the United States experienced physical domestic violence every minute. Research shows1 in 4 adult American women and 1 in 7 adult American menhave experienced some type of severe violence – including being hit with something hard, being kicked or beaten, or being burned on purpose – at the hands of an intimate partner.

Disasters – whether hurricanes, earthquakes or pandemics like the coronavirus –disrupt social and physical environmentsfor large groups of people. These changes increase families’ vulnerabilities to domestic violence.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for instance, scholars found aone-third increasein emotional abuse and anear-doublingin physical abuse among women experiencing domestic violence.

In the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, theTexas Council on Family Violencefound that as the storm crisis developed, domestic-violence response organizationsreceived more callsthan their normal weekly and monthly average. Specifically, there was an increase in severe violence such asstrangulation, kicking, beating, stabbing and other injuries with weapons.

Observers are already seeing apattern of increasing domestic violence around the world, correlating with the timing of social distancing lockdowns.

Early reports from China show at least atripling of domestic violence. Cities across Europe and the U.K. are also reportingsurges in domestic violence calls.

The United States is seeing a similar pattern. For example, in Seattle, one of the first U.S. cities to have a major outbreak, the police saw a21% increase in domestic violence reportsin March. In Texas, during March the Montgomery County District Attorney saw a35% increase in domestic violence cases. Police around the country areadapting their domestic violence response plansto prepare for the expected increases and to ensure victims can get help even with restrictions on public movement.

Even just taking a walk to calm down carries some risk – and in some places is discouraged by authorities.Alexander Spatari/Getty

It’s about power and control

Right now, many different factors are combining to cause Americans – and people all around the world – to feel like their lives are not under their control.

Regular routines for work, education, exercise, entertainment and socializing are all disrupted. Millions have lost their jobs or had their hours or pay reduced. People who have existing medical conditions are both more vulnerable and less able to seek treatment.

When people feel powerless in one area of their lives, they oftenseek to establish more powerover other areas. This is particularly dangerous in domestic violence situations, because domestic abuse is, at its core, an effort by one partner todominate and establish psychological, emotional, physical and sexual controlover the other partner.

Since it’s not clear how much time people will need to be in relative isolation or when they will be able to work, socialize and regain control over their own lives, this coronavirus situation may be even more difficult than other disasters and emergencies. This will increase abuse in vulnerable homes that may have been unhealthy but not yet violent, and raise violence levels in already violent homes.

Even the healthiest peoplehave a hard time being isolatedfor long periods. Many abusersdon’t have the emotional resources and coping skillsto handle the pressure.

Abusers who are intreatment for domestic violenceor otherwise are trying to get a handle on their problems may also have difficulty because theirsupport options– like attending a counseling meeting, seeing or talking with their therapist, or leaving the house to visit with a friend or work out – are more limited now.

Another aspect of the coronavirus pandemic is also worsening the situation: Domestic-violence hotlines are reporting calls from victims whoseabusers won’t let them leave the housebecause they might catch the disease, and are threatening to lock them out if they do leave.

Some solutions emerge

People are aware of the escalating problem: The recent US$2 trillionfederal CARES Actincluded assistance fornonprofits that provide supportfordomestic violence victims, letting them apply for business loans and help meeting payroll.

Mental-health organizations are issuingsuggestions to help familiesreduce uncertainty and stress in the home.

In France, people who are suffering from domestic violence can get help by going to a pharmacy – businesses that are still open amid the lockdown – andusing a code wordto ask for assistance. New Zealand motels are offering theirvacant rooms as sheltersfor people who need to leave unsafe homes – without violating social-distancing guidelines.

Average people can help, too, reaching out to loved ones to stay connected, setting up regular check-in times and even agreeing on code words to signal there is a crisis they need help with. This pandemic is challenging, and staying at home can be difficult, but there is help.

Editor’s note: If you or a loved one is experiencing domestic violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline offers several contact methods: Call 800-799-7233, text LOVEIS to 22522 or visit its website, which has online chat support available around the clock. If you need help with other types of violence or mental health issues, text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

The Conversation

Shelly M. Wagers, Assistant Professor of Criminology, University of South Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


David M. Higgins II, Publisher/Editor

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in...