Breaking the Silence: Domestic Violence During COVID-19

May 4, 2020

Rates of domestic violence that are already shockingly high—one in four women and one in ten men in the U.S. experience intimate partner violence—could be even higher today as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. This month in New York City, calls to domestic violence hotlines and visits to support websites in New York City have spiked. A newly published paper by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health researchers cites reports of a recent surge in domestic violence in China during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This pandemic is a perfect storm of stress and close proximity,” says Lisa Bates, assistant professor of epidemiology, whose research interests include intersections between poverty, women's empowerment, intimate partner violence, and mental health. “Being confined in close quarters all the time under stressful conditions can make violence worse, and chronic exposure to violence is exacerbated.”

Generally, incidents of violence go up the more time survivors and their abusers are together, for example, around the holidays. Quarantining and social distancing measures likely have the same effect—but potentially worse with no set end. At the same time, domestic violence survivors’ access to formal and informal supports are curtailed.

Although the New York Police Department has reported a decline in domestic violence incident reports, this drop likely due to underreporting. Under normal circumstances, domestic violence survivors may access resources when their partner is at work, or outside of the house. Survivors who share a home with their abuser are also less able to find privacy to call a supportive friend or domestic violence helpline. Additionally, while shelters for domestic violence survivors mostly remain open, stay-at-home orders have affected business hours for some domestic violence organizations and walk-in hours may be more limited. People experiencing domestic violence may also be reticent to resort to shelters out of fear of infection.

Domestic violence organizations have come up with innovative solutions so they can continue to provide support during the lockdown. Specially designed apps, such as Circle of 6, can also serve as a confidential resource that doesn’t require calling or going to a shelter. If survivors are able to access a safe computer or smartphone, online chats are another way they can connect with formal support. In many cases, though, survivors may first start with a conversation with a friend or family member. (NYC HOPE, a city-run domestic violence support program, offers tips for how to be supportive to someone experiencing abuse, such as providing validation and avoiding victim-blaming.)

“The fact that domestic violence is seen as a taboo topic promotes shame and victim-blaming,” says Bates, a member of the Advisory Board of the COVID-19 Task Force on Domestic Violence. “We often focus on the bruises that go along with domestic violence. We must also tend to the real and psychological consequences.”

Too often domestic violence is ignored or seen as a string of isolated incidents, even in medical screenings and health surveys. “During lockdown periods, just as we need to be concerned about food insecurity, we should also be worried about whether home is a safe place to shelter,” says Bates. “We should use multiple contact pointssuch as healthcare visits, pharmacies, during contact tracing, systematic checkpoints to make sure people have a safe place to self-isolate and provide referrals. This way, we can preemptively connect more people to resources.”

Getting timely support to survivors is critical, of course. Also important for the longer term is recording data and best practices to better serve community needs going forward. “Research on domestic violence during this pandemic is incredibly important,” Bates says. “It will go a long way towards helping us ride out the rest of this epidemic and prepare for the future.”