Locked Down and Locked In: Exploring the Impact of COVID-19 on Intimate Partner Violence
Marissa Murphy, Dominican College
Abstract: More than ten million adults experience domestic violence each year and from 2016 to 2018 the number of intimate partner violence (IPV) victimizations in the United States increased by 42% (Morgan & Oudekerk, 2019). Since the middle of March 2020, millions of people all across the country have found themselves confined to their homes due to the shelter in place mandates sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the heightened feelings of stress caused by the restrictions on freedom, many households are battling with unemployment, virtual learning challenges, worsening mental health issues and alcohol and substance abuse. These issues pose a serious threat to the welfare and safety of victims of IPV. This research will explore the impact of COVID-19 on IPV victimization and related victim services like 911 calls, arrests, hospitalizations, child protective services, and legal interventions. The practical gap behind this research is that the pandemic is expected to have exacerbated the rate of injuries among intimate partner violence victims while also leaving them without access to the resources necessary to escape their abuser. To better understand the scope of the issue at hand and the impact of COVID-19 on IPV, a literature review and analysis of national victimization reports will be augmented with interviews with victim services practitioners who will provide front line accounts of frequency and severity of victimization incidents. This research identifies innovations and improvements in the traditional services offered by victim support organizations and reports of IPV statistics during COVID-19.
Since the middle of March 2020, millions of people all across the country have found themselves confined to their homes because of the shelter in place mandates sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the heightened feelings of stress caused by the restrictions on freedom, many households are battling with unemployment, worsening mental health issues and substance abuse. These issues pose a serious threat to the safety of victims who live in homes with a history of Intimate Partner Violence. This should be spelled out on first reference, not in the next sentence. The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have exacerbated the rate of injuries among IPV victims while also leaving them without access to the resources necessary to escape their abuser. This paper focuses on explaining the effect COVID-19 has had on IPV while exploring the resources and strategies that have been most effective to promote victim contact in a safe and cautious manner. The methodology used consists of qualitative data along with the use of unstructured interview methods with three individuals who work in victim services. The main limitation of this research was that since the pandemic is still ongoing as well as data collection, the amount of qualitative data available was limited. This in turn also means that the full extent of the impact the pandemic has had on victims of IPV will not be known until researchers can analyze the data post COVID-19.
Abusers strategically use tactics to intimidate and humiliate their victims (see Appendix A). Common behaviors of abusers include isolation, economic abuse, emotional abuse, and physical abuse. By using these strategies, an abuser attempts to denigrate the victim and their inability to stand up for themselves. IPV relationships differ extraordinarily from regular healthy relationships as a regular couple can maturely speak about emotions, but those who are being abused do not have that same luxury. Perpetrators of IPV can be current or former spouses or partners, and victims of IPV are their significant others.
IPV is a very isolating and fear inducing experience. The statistics (i.e, one in four women and one in seven men experience IPV at some point within their lives) are sobering and point to the exigency of this public health concern (Froimson, Bryan, Bryan, & Zakrison, 2020). The reluctance to speak to a loved one about the abuse may also be in response to the fear of retaliatory harm to themselves or their child and/or family members being hurt in retaliation (Buttell & Ferreira, 2020). Measures meant to protect translate as increased, isolated time with abusive partners. Thus, shelter-in-place may exacerbate the risk of injury (WHO, 2020). Lengthy periods of isolation combined with factors discussed in the forthcoming sections have unintentionally created the perfect storm for abuse to continue and intensify.
The purpose and importance of this research are multifold. First, it brings awareness to intimate partner violence and the dangers that come with it. Second, it attempts to identify a solution to the victims who have found themselves trapped in an unforeseen inescapable situation. Finally, the review of literature and commentary from practitioners in the field underscore an urgent and necessary need for enhanced victim resources and new strategies to provide advocacy for many previous and new-found victims who are trapped in close quarters with abusers.
Review of Literature
Factors Contributing to Increases
The pandemic has negatively impacted the stress on many families due to a myriad of factors that have arisen since lockdown orders. Research shows there was a strong association found between those who had been emotionally abused prior to the pandemic who then experienced the onset of violence during lock-down, adding to the household’s pandemic-induced stress (Morgan & Boxall, 2020). Some of the factors to be discussed that have brought on an increase of stress range from financial issues, unemployment, and increasing mental health issues as well as substance abuse issues.
The COVID-19 pandemic itself has caused shortages of essential resources and economic problems, causing stressors that can lead to significant economic, social, and psychological consequences acting as catalysts for stress which inevitably lead to violence (Usher, Bhullar, Durkin, Gyamfi, & Jackson, 2020). Many people have seen a reduction or loss in pay, which results in financial stress for individuals and their families. As per the power and control wheel (see Appendix A), financial abuse is already a common form of harm in IPV stricken families as abusers will monitor accounts or withhold money. The lethality risk of IPV has shown that events like loss of income and job loss can escalate an abuser, which can result in serious injury and even death (Stoufer, 2020).
Social isolation when paired with psychological and economic stressors can increase the likelihood of negative coping mechanisms arising. This can be mechanisms such as excessive alcohol consumption and drug use (Usher, Bhullar, Durkin, Gyamfi, & Jackson, 2020). This behavior can trigger violence, especially when it occurs within the confines of one’s home. This abuse of substances combined with poor mental health is also associated with a greater risk of violence taking place, and victim support services have also seen an increase in alcohol involvement during IPV related incidents (Morgan & Boxall, 2020).
In cases where victims may be able to leave the home to seek treatment for injuries and abuse, researchers found the risk of contracting COVID-19 outweighs the benefit of support (Usher, Bhullar, Durkin, Gyamfi, & Jackson, 2020). In other cases, COVID has served as a fortuitous tactic when abusers threaten to kick victims and their children out of the house and expose them to the virus so they will die (Stoufer, 2020). Reticence to seek out services, compounded with pandemic-based restrictions and fears of catching the virus, serve to exacerbate the silent suffering victims.
Limited Resources for Victims of IPV
During the peak of the pandemic within the U.S., the lack of resources left victims with nowhere to go to escape the abuse as IPV shelters were closed (Buttell & Ferreira, 2020). Many victims faced reduced access to victim services because they shifted to remote operations during the peak of the pandemic (Kaukinen, 2020). Abusers were aware of remote service options and intentionally cut off access to exert control over their victims (Kaukinen, 2020). In addition, some abusers may have taken away cell phones or monitored calls and texts to prohibit victims from seeking support.
Those who are in the minority of victims, like males, are offered limited support even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic regarding shelter capacity. This is because most shelters are limited to women (Froimson, Bryan, Bryan, & Zakrison, 2020). In the case of transgender people, there are even fewer options. While the enactment of stay-at-home orders were for the good of public health, these orders meant survivors had much less access to informal and formal support networks (Krishnadas & Taha, 2020). By focusing research on how services have been limited, the full extent of the effect COVID-19 has had on victims and victim services can be analyzed. It is important to address these limitations before victims must choose between homelessness or staying in close and dangerous quarters with their abusers.
Response to Increased Reports
Victim service agencies have aimed to combat the anticipated rise in cases of IPV and tried to help victims in every way possible. The United Nations Secretary General has called for countries to prioritize setting up emergency warning systems and support for those who find themselves living with IPV and violence within their families (Usher et al., 2020). In places like France, pharmacies and grocery stores have started to provide these emergency warning systems to help those in need of help indicate that they need support and are in danger. They are able to do so through the introduction of certain code words that would help alert the staff at the grocery store or pharmacy that they need help (Usher, Bhullar, Durkin, Gyamfi, & Jackson, 2020).
Multiple governments worldwide and support organizations are urging the public to stay alert and reach out to family and friends often, providing care and support while also being certain that the individual they are reaching out to is feeling safe within their home (Moreira & Pinto De Costa, 2020). Due to COVID, many health care providers suspended in office visits and relied on telehealth to connect them with patients. While this is convenient for most patients, it has eliminated the ability for practitioners to identify nonverbal cues in victims of IPV. Now these providers must take steps to ensure that the victim is alone during their telehealth appointments so it is safe for the patient to disclose any abuse. Beginning the conversations with simple yes or no questions about the victim’s surroundings can be a useful strategy if the victims finds themselves not alone as they can discreetly disclose this (Moreira & Pinto De Costa, 2020). With these more open, nondirective ways of questioning victims about IPV, they seem to respond favorably as they feel the conversation is being applied and fits their specific needs (Moreira & Pinto De Costa, 2020).
Resources must become more accessible via multiple platforms. These also should be disseminated through local and national news outlets as well as social media to effectively reach as many victims as possible. Some individuals may have limited access to information from social media and their cell phones as well as the news. In response, paper flyers containing helpful information about IPV resources should be posted within neighborhoods to increase accessibility (Jarnecke & Flanagan, 2020). Due to the difficulty behind a victim actively placing a phone call while home with a violent partner, the app M-Health has been developed to provide victims with education on IPV, information on shelters and hotlines as well as journals for logging IPV incidents and access to tools that can help a victim develop a safety plan (Jarnecke & Flanagan, 2020). Some are cleverly disguised as weather apps and have passcodes to allow victims to safely navigate useful resources (Jarnecke & Flanagan, 2020).
IPV is one of the leading causes of death among those who are pregnant. Because of this, an app called MyHealthyPregnancy was developed to assess a patient’s psychosocial risks. It offers relevant resources about local women’s shelters and can send their providers information on the patient’s risk in real time (Krishnamurti, Davis, Quinn, RNC, Castillo, Martin, & Simhan, 2021). The app is password protected to prevent an abuser from discovering it on a device and accessing the user’s history. Another app that was created called Bright Sky acts as a journal to track incidents of abuse, and it also contains a button for emergencies that will call law enforcement (Krishnadas & Taha, 2020). This app, like the ones previously discussed, is disguised as a normal weather app as to not alert abusers.
Organizations such as the National Resource Center for Domestic Violence continue to compile a comprehensive list of IPV guidelines and recommendations for how to safely respond and recover victims from these abusive situations (Kofman & Garfin, 2020). “Safe word” and “Signal for Help” campaigns have also been created to facilitate discreet ways for victims to have access to IPV resources (Bradley, DiPasquale, Dillabough, & Schneider, 2020).
Most Effective Means of Communicating with Victims
It is evident that victim services have done an excellent job to protect victims. Innovations like the creation of apps such as M-health or the MyHealthyPregnancy app have been extremely beneficial. This is especially true concerning the ability to put passcodes to prevent unwanted eyes from reading victim’s private information. The design of these apps is effective in concealing a victim’s attempt to gather information about services and remain undetected. In addition, the reroute buttons found on many victim service websites may encourage user confidence and promote use in general (Krishnamurti, Davis, Quinn, RNC, Castillo, Martin, & Simhan, 2021). This feature provides comfort and reassurance in not raising suspicion from abusers. These specific innovations such as apps, chat and text messaging features, implementing passcodes on apps, and redirection or exit buttons on websites facilitate victim access to services. While obviously none of these methods are foolproof from preventing detection, they serve as a conduit to potentially life-saving support and valuable resources during desperate times for victims.
The sampling strategy used to conduct this research was a convenience sampling made up of individuals who work in victim services. The data collected is qualitative data, based upon three interviews that used unstructured interview methods based on a convenience sample. The use of unstructured interview methods allowed the interviewees to talk in-depth in their own words in order to develop a true sense of the situation at hand (McLeod, 2014). The interviews were conducted in March 2021 and ranged from fifteen to twenty-three minutes long. The note taking strategy used was writing down key words as well as some direct quotes as the interviews were conducted. This helped easily indicate the most important information gathered from each interviewee. Interviewee One was an attorney with Family Court. Interviewee Two was a director of advocacy and support services at a center located in New York. Interviewee Three was a case manager who also works as an advocate with a victim advocacy group located in New York as well. The qualitative data gathered from conducting these interviews explained different strategies that have been implemented and innovations that have been made to strategies used to get in contact with victims, first-hand accounts on the increase in reports, and information on how the pandemic has impacted different types of victim services.
The interviews conducted revealed an abundance of information and insight into how victim services of different types have been coping with the pandemic. Interviewee one, who is an attorney with family court and works for a nonprofit organization, has almost daily interactions with victims. One believes that:
“There has definitely been an increase in cases, but due to the underreporting of domestic violence, it can be hard to tell. The fact of the courts being closed for a long time may have resulted in a lot of cases not being brought to light.”
Some factors contributing to this increase cited by interviewee one included financial struggles and employment problems, which have made situations even worse than prior to the pandemic. Interviewee one believes that:
“Just being home on top of one another in an abusive relationship is the worst thing possible…the fact that a lot of people lost their jobs and are struggling financially has also made the situation even worse.”
Interviewee one also spoke about the court system and how it may leave victims with no other choice but to stay at home with their abusers even when requesting and then granted an order of protection. Interviewee one states:
“Previously a lot of the order of protections included vacate orders and now, especially at the beginning of the pandemic when nothing was open and there were strict travel restrictions…judges because of financial situations will put on the order the abuser and victim stay in separate parts of the house.”
Furthermore, interviewee one expands on this by discussing how this type of arrangement does not work because:
“If you are under one roof, you probably have one kitchen and one bathroom, and one washing machine. You are both going to end up in common spaces.”
This means that despite the order, interaction between the victims and their assailants is almost inevitable as they are bound to see one another if they are still living and sharing a space. Interviewee three, who is a case manager and a victim advocate, also similarly stated
“Judges were extremely hesitant to hand out orders of protection because the abuser had nowhere to go.”
This hesitance to strictly enforce orders of protections or not even giving them out results in victims being trapped at home with their abusers, even if they reported and had the means to obtain an order.
In each interview that was conducted, these individuals cited the concern and struggle of many victims not being comfortable, as referred to by interviewee one
“Telling these really personal, painful details to a face on a screen. It is such an impersonal way of disclosing a crisis.”
The impersonal component is not the only struggle with trying to interact with victims over video chat. Interviewee three stated,
“Sometimes the cellphone is not ideal with a population who is illiterate and cannot read or write, so that is not something that is feasible to them or they may not be technologically savvy.”
This shows that even with the improvements that have been made to get in contact with victims, it does not apply to every victim. Similarly, when asked about virtual communication with victims, interviewee one said:
“They may not have access to computer or wifi, but they also probably do not have the privacy or time to do that (zoom sessions).”
Issues concerning Wi-Fi and computers limits the contact with a victim greatly because as lockdown continued, many of the ways to get in touch with resources besides calling a hotline involved the internet. Interviewee three spoke about shelters and how the pandemic has affected this particular type of service offered to victims. Interviewee three said:
“At the height of it (the pandemic), DSS (Department of Social Services) started questioning the clients and asking them if they had a roof over their head. If they said yes but it is with my abuser, they were literally told to stay (with their abuser) because there was no room in the shelters at that point.”
This experience with the shelters not accepting victims along with failure to enforce orders of protection strictly has left victims feeling helpless and not being able to escape their abuser.
All three of the interviewees agencies implemented and improved ways of communication with victims. They each adopted new more discreet ways to do so. Interviewee two, who is a director of advocacy and support services, says in regard to their new text-chat platform:
“They started it because during the pandemic, individuals were now quarantining with their abuser. Being home all day with them created more needs for services and a different method because being home with their abusers they were unable to call our hotline.”
This reasoning also caused the agency to launch this platform in the middle of last year instead of the end because it was truly a need for victims. It also has a hotline set up that operates twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week as well as quick exit options on its website, which quickly redirects victims to a weather site with a click of a button. It also did training with staff on how to interact with clients via Zoom. Interviewee one’s services set up a private number for victims to send photos and texts to. This number had no personal link in order to balance the safety with the victim and the privacy of the attorneys. Interviewee three’s service set up a chat line on its website along with a phone number victims can text to receive help or resources.
Lastly, each of the interviewees indicated along with reports of IPV increasing, the psychological aspects of the abuse had gotten significantly worse. The verbal, emotional, and intimidation aspect takes a toll on victims along with the physical abuse most, if not all, were experiencing.
While the pandemic is still ongoing as well as data collection concerning IPV and COVID-19, a lot of anecdotal evidence and some statistics have come to light, which illustrates the impact of COVID-19 on IPV victims. IPV has been exacerbated by the public health measures that are supposed to keep communities safe from this virus but are harming many with another type of danger. Increases in IPV cases have been seen all over the world along with a demand for emergency shelters, especially in Canada, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom (UN Women, 2020). In Australia, Google reported a seventy-five percent increase in internet searches that were related to support for IPV (Usher et al., 2020). Brazil has seen their reports of IPV increase by forty to fifty percent (Campbell, 2020). Along with their increase in cases, Spain has indicated a dreadful trend between intimate partner violence and homicides (Campbell, 2020). In France, reports of IPV following the implementation of quarantine and self-isolation measures increased by 30% since their lockdown went into effect on March 17 (UN Women, 2020). Also, the United Nations Population Fund estimates that there will be a twenty percent increase in IPV throughout the globe in response to lockdowns and quarantines (Buttell, Cannon, Rose, & Ferreira, 2021).
As quarantine measures made its way into the United States, so did an increase in IPV incidents. Individual states started to report similar increases to the ones reported in other countries. These increases were ranging from 21 to 35% throughout the country (Usher, et al., 2020). In Dallas, Texas, there was an increase in IPV during the first two weeks after stay-at-home orders were implemented (Piquero et al., 2020). First time violence was influenced by lockdown orders and added stress brought on by the pandemic as two-thirds of women who reported having experienced sexual or physical violence indicated that it was the first time their partner had been violent. Those who had experienced IPV prior to the onset of the pandemic said that the violence they were experiencing was only getting worse (Morgan & Boxall, 2020).
The interviewees firsthand accounts about the effect of abuse and COVID-19’s impact on IPV coincided with what is being written in the current literature. Interviewee one confirms that there has been an increase in cases, but due to IPV already normally being underreported, it may be hard to tell statistic-wise. This may be because of how long the courts were closed, which could indicate a lot of cases may not have been brought to light. It was also mentioned that victims may have no choice but to stay at home with their abusers even when requesting and granted an order of protection. This is due to the abuser possibly not having the financial means to obtain a place to live unless it is with the victim. Interviewee two also discussed the judge’s hesitancy to give orders of protections if the abuser had nowhere to go. Regardless of an order of protection, most homes only have one of commonly shared spaces like kitchens, bathrooms, and washing machines. Interviewee three spoke in the interview about how shelters would now ask victims if they had roofs over their heads. When victims replied yes but indicated the home was where they were living with their abusers, they were told to stay home. This shows that without the option of orders of protection and shelters, victims have nowhere else to turn to.
A concern and struggle raised by Interviewee one, along with the two other individuals who were interviewed, was that many victims are not comfortable with talking about these personal and painful details online. These interactions with a victim felt impersonal. It was reported by all of these individuals that emotional, psychological, and the controlling aspects of the abuse have definitely increased and become more severe.
In the interviews conducted, it was found that many agencies set up a type of text chat program in response to agencies seeing a need for a different method of contacting services from victims. Interviewee two spoke about how her agency did training on the proper and most effective way to interact with clients on Zoom. Interviewee three also indicated that some victims may be illiterate or not savvy in regard to technology which may prevent these types of victims from using discreet forms of communication like the online chats or apps offered. This forces these victims to use more risky ways to communicate with shelters such as on the phone or over Zoom, so it is important to note the new discreet apps and chat options are not an option for all victims.
Escalations in emotional abuse like coercive control was also reported by each of the individuals who were interviewed. Some victims have reported that their abusers had forbade them from washing their hands in an effort to increase the victims’ chances of contracting the virus and also threatened to withhold medical attention if the victim does end up getting COVID-19 (Campbell, 2020). The overall confinement to their homes in order to protect them from catching COVID-19 comes with a risk of experiencing IPV and the associated mental health costs that comes with it (Buttell, Cannon, Rose, & Ferreira, 2021). Due to the nature of the pandemic and the control abusers have over their victims, the true number of how much they have increased may never be known because of a low level or general lack of reporting.
Several limitations exist in the current study, which should be noted. First, IPV was most likely underreported during lockdown, and data about rates of IPV during the pandemic are still being collected and analyzed. Underreporting leads to estimates being underestimated when trying to predict rates of IPV during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, because data collection and research are still being conducted, research has yet to illustrate the extent of this problem as well as the short- and long-term effectiveness of new strategies.
Future research should focus on exploring different discreet methods to contact victims. This should be done in order to establish a plan of action for victim services in future situations where victims find themselves trapped at home with their abuser. Future research should also explore ways to expand capacities of shelters in order to prevent housing from being so extremely limited as it was in the pandemic. This should also focus on men or those in minority groups, including but not limited to racial minority groups or the LGBTQ+ community as there are not resources targeted toward these victims.
Overall, the impact COVID-19 has had on victims of intimate partner violence has been immense as places from all over the globe are reporting increases. Victim services and other organizations have implemented many useful and innovative strategies from apps to new ways for victims to easily and safely access information and resources on their websites. These new ways of interacting and methods of reaching out from the victim allow more discreet contact with agencies than ever before.
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This wheel needs attribution. I found it on this link:
Here is the explanation I found, dated March 12, 2018:
The Power and Control Wheel is a tool utilized in the domestic violence/interpersonal violence field to understand the tactics abusers use to gain power and control over their victims. The wheel is instrumental to our understanding of how abusers operate. The wheel was created by the Domestic Abuser Intervention Programs as part of “The Duluth Model”, which focuses on training and education that teaches how communities can work together to shift blame to abusers and better support survivors. To date, it is the most common batterer intervention program in the United States.