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:
- Millions of Americansare not safe from violent abuse at home. Now the federal, state and local governments are telling everyone to stay there – for their own safety.
- For some people,going to workmay be their only reprieve from emotional abuse and violence. Now they have been told to work from home.
- For others, the only place their children aresafe from abuse is at school. Now those children have been told tostudy at home.
- If a person suffering abuse is planning to leave, they may besecretly stashing money awayto make an escape. Now they mayneed that money for other expenses, because few jobs are completely safe from the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis.
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.
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.
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.
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.