Domestic Violence during the Pandemic

Throughout the pandemic, there have been legitimate concerns about potential increases in domestic violence. When states started considering a shelter in place order, many domestic violence shelters and support programs were worried about families being confined together in their households for extended periods of time. Subsequently, USA Today would report that at “the height of restrictions in late March and early April of 2020, more than 310 million Americans were under directives ranging from ‘shelter in place’ to ‘stay at home’.”

The pandemic worsened during November and December of 2020 and signs of a widely accessible vaccine were faint. As the country soon discovered, the COVID-19 pandemic would have a detrimental effect on our family systems, economy, and social issues. The changes across all of these issues during the pandemic served to directly exacerbate domestic violence and intimate partner violence in the home. Women of color were especially left vulnerable to domestic violence during the pandemic, as existing inequities made the pandemic harder on communities of color as a whole.

Domestic violence is considered by some as just physical abuse, but aspects such as financial, emotional, and psychological abuse are also large factors that make it even harder for people to leave. The organization Reach Beyond Domestic Violence cites six types of abuses, including physical, sexual, verbal/emotional, mental/psychological, financial/economic, and cultural/identity. The purpose of all of these behaviors and abuses is one person exerting power and control over another.

As would eventually be reported by numerous studies, domestic violence rose significantly in states and across the entire country during the pandemic. While organizations worked overtime to field calls, they would soon find that the worsening of the economy, along with changes in social issues and family systems as a result of the pandemic, would increase the need for resources and services among survivors.

Additionally, family dynamics were forcibly changed. Parents dealt with the added responsibility of keeping their children on task during online schoolwork, as well as the need to both work and care for children at home while childcare was scarce. People who work at domestic violence support programs reported that they didn’t receive only intimate relationship issues but an increase in calls concerning family violence. Organizations believe that it’s linked to the pressure of virtual learning for kids and employment uncertainty.

With the increased focus on home and family life due to added responsibility, from online school and work to lost jobs and social distancing mandates, domestic violence victims lost their usual support systems and network of friends. Abusers can even use COVID-19 as a reason for increased monitoring of their partner’s moves. As further evidence of these connections, during the first week after school closures and stay at home orders were implemented in March 2020, law enforcement agencies in Alabama, Oregon, and Texas reported a large increase (27 percent, 22 percent, and 18 percent, respectively) in arrests or calls related to domestic violence as compared with the previous periods.

Employment instability also exacerbated domestic violence issues. Just the initial closing of businesses in March 2020 led to the loss of 870,000 jobs. These measures were necessary to mitigate the spread of the virus, but the economic implications cannot be glossed over. Unemployment increased up to 14.7 percent, significantly higher than the 50-year low of 3.5 percent registered in February 2020. In April 2020, the United States economy lost close to 21 million jobs, by far the largest drop on record and more than double the cumulative loss during the 2008–2009 global financial crisis. Job losses were experienced especially by women and workers of color. Economic crises often increase financial control in the home and can make it difficult for partners to leave. In addition, abusers who have lost their job may find that the stress and pressure cause them to lash out at their partners who might be employed significantly more than before.

Social issues such as food insecurity, affordable housing, racial injustice, healthcare access, and overarching inequities worsened throughout the pandemic. As of May 19, 2021, there have been 32,825,625 cases of COVID-19 and 584,337 related deaths, according to the CDC tracker. Communities of color were especially hard-hit by the pandemic due to existing issues such as health care inequities, medical discrimination, housing, financial, and job inequities. Across many studies on domestic violence, it was found that women of color were victims of domestic violence at shockingly high rates, as compared to all other demographics. People seeking domestic violence support organizations that might have only needed counseling services or housing prior to the pandemic were all of a sudden struggling for basic necessities and resources.

Every facet of society had to pivot and adapt, including domestic violence shelters, as they considered how confinement would affect violence in the home. Unfortunately, the staggering economic, social, and institutional changes during this period directly exacerbated domestic violence in the household in more ways than one.

Residential Director Neyda Dejesus of the Women’s Resource Center, a domestic violence prevention agency, stated that, even before the pandemic, the organization struggled to keep up with housing requests. As the pandemic progressed, they had to double up their emergency shelter’s capacity with extra beds, to house twice as many people as it did the year before. Executive Director, Jessica Walsh, of the Women’s Resource Center, stated that, because of the pandemic, they were also receiving clients who, previously, may have just needed a couple of services, like counseling or legal assistance. Now, those same people needed childcare, unemployment benefits, transportation, or even basic grocery items. Even survivors who are no longer with their abusive partners and years into their healing are struggling with isolation and hypervigilance as a result of the pandemic.

Concerns about the increase in domestic violence during the pandemic have proved to be well-founded and augmented by existing inequities. As we start to emerge from the pandemic, it’s important to prioritize funding resources for domestic violence prevention programs and organizations. The effects of domestic violence are felt over a lifetime and the increase in cases demands an increase in resources.