Domestic violence and COVID-19

October 21st, 2020

Crisis within a crisis 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, stay-at-home orders have been in place in some states for over seven months. During this time, government officials have been forced to deal with a number of issues caused by these orders including a sharp rise in cases of domestic abuse. The Chicago Police Department reported a 12% increase in domestic abuse calls this past March and April when compared to March and April of 2019. Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline also saw a 17% increase in call volume this April over the same time in 2019. 

Sadly, this increase in abuse is not confined to the United States. Countries around the globe have seen a rise in domestic violence — also called intimate partner violence — as a result of lockdown orders. In April, the French police reported a 30% spike in domestic violence cases. Spain saw a similar spike — an 18% increase in just the first two weeks of lockdown. The United Nations Population Fund recently issued a report that suggested three months of lockdowns would result in more than a 20% increase in worldwide intimate partner violence. 

These spikes were also not unforeseen. Experts predicted that just 10 days after lockdowns were put in place, a spike in intimate partner violence would become apparent. Unfortunately, their predictions were proved right. Early in the pandemic, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres tweeted, “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.” 

Dr. Jamye Coffman, the medical director at the center for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect in Fort Worth, worries that the long-term effects of the pandemic will include a rise in child abuse. A similar pattern emerged during the last recession. “[N]obody’s watching kids except the families. . . . There may be abuse that hasn’t been reported because nobody knows that it’s happening.” With many children attending school virtually, teachers, who are usually frontline reporters of abuse, aren’t in a position to make these calls. 

In addition, restrictions on movement and a lack of housing have left many women and children trapped at home with their abusers. In Evanston, Illinois, a YWCA shelter was first forced to restrict the admittance of new residents, but was eventually forced to close its doors as the risk of community transmission grew. While the shelter tried to rehome families to hotels and other safe havens, this lack of resources is emblematic of why fleeing an abuser is even harder during this time. 

What is domestic violence? 

According to The New England Journal of Medicine, one in four women and one in 10 men are the victims of intimate partner violence. This is defined as when one party uses force to intimidate another party into submission. Domestic abuse can involve physical or sexual violence, but abuse can also be present in other ways. Emotional manipulation, constant surveillance, restricting access to friends and family and denying access to basic needs like food and sanitation are also examples of domestic abuse. 

In many ways, intimate partner violence is coded into American culture. In the United States, it was legal for a husband to beat his wife until 1920. Even into the 1950s, popular culture casually accepted domestic violence. Shows like The Honeymooners featured jokes about a husband threatening to give his wife a punch “right in the kisser.” Because of this history of acceptance, it can be hard for victims of domestic violence to gain the help they need, even from their local communities. 

With COVID-19 forcing families to stay home, victims of intimate partner violence are isolated from extended communities at work, church and other social gatherings. Even family members are often cut off. This isolation is a primary tool perpetrators use to control victims. Over time, it leads to a normalization of violence and increased instances of violence. Researchers have also found a pattern of consistent spikes in intimate partner violence after natural disasters. 

Other factors also increase the likelihood of intimate partner violence. Stress, economic anxiety and the use of alcohol all lead to higher rates of abuse. Unfortunately, these have synergistic effects. Partners experience increased stress due to job loss or the risk of job loss. This leads to excess alcohol consumption, which lowers inhibitions and leads to aggression. These factors create a self-perpetuating cycle that results in harm of partners and children who are caught at home with the perpetrator. 

When we add in the stress of a global pandemic, children home from school without childcare and the rampant seasonal storms and wildfires this year, we discover a perfect storm for an increase in intimate partner violence. 

Interrupting cycles of abuse 

Recently, domestic abuse hotlines report an increase in questions about how to live with an abuser, rather than information on how to escape. Questions about how to maintain peace, de-escalate violence, secretly save money and how to develop code words with children to alert them to call 911 have also increased. 

While these tactics may work to temporarily alleviate some of the pressure of living with intimate partner violence, they are not long-term solutions to the problem. A lack of safe housing options and a lack of financial resources are major roadblocks to those escaping these dangerous situations. 

While the crisis seems dire, there are constructive ways that churches and communities can interrupt these cycles. The New England Journal of Medicine recommends expanded internet access that will allow victims to search for information safely at home. They also recommend creating secret online accounts for patients to receive clinician information. In Dallas-Fort Worth, the Salvation Army is delivering food to those who signal that they or their family members are suffering from domestic violence at home. This kind of help and outreach is essential and establishes relationships that can be the ticket out of a dangerous situation. 


Caring for perpetrators 

It’s only natural to view the perpetrators of domestic violence with disdain, and it can be a significant challenge to extend care and compassion to those who have committed acts of violence upon their families and partners. Nevertheless, our faith teaches us that no one is beyond the reach of God. 

Many researchers and organizations are working to rehabilitate perpetrators of intimate partner violence. Care for those who have caused harm often looks like addressing the underlying concerns that lead them to choose violence, and helping them to learn new and better coping mechanisms. In one example, trauma-informed treatments for veterans who have committed violent acts as a result of PTSD have shown positive outcomes. Alcohol abuse and job insecurity also have a tendency to feed off one another, causing a feedback loop that leads to violence. Alcohol abuse support groups, job interventions and therapy are all ways to break this cycle. 

The church has not always been a safe place for women and children suffering from abuse. For many, verses like Ephesians 5:22 which encourage women to submit to their husbands have a legacy of encouraging women to stay in abusive and violent relationships, exposing themselves and their children to cyclical violence. If the church wants to support both survivors and perpetrators, we will need to address our own flaws in order to be a true refuge for the lost and weary.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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