How COVID-19 is Affecting Domestic Violence

Social distancing and isolation are playing an important role in mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But being forced into close quarters every day with spouses and significant others can put some people at greater risk for abuse. As we recognize Domestic Violence Awareness Month, CarolAnn Peterson, lecturer at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and expert in domestic violence issues and the empowerment of abuse victims, shares her thoughts on how the pandemic is affecting intimate partner violence and how to help victims stay safe. 

How has the pandemic affected the prevalence of intimate partner violence (IPV)?

We know that there’s been an impact because victims are with the abuser 24/7. What we don’t know is exactly what the statistics are because police are being overwhelmed with a lot of other calls related to the pandemic. Data gathering hasn’t been as complete as it normally would be. But we do know statistics in some areas such as Denver. About two months ago, Denver reported that they’ve seen an increase of 300 new calls a day in domestic violence incidents.

When you are sequestered with somebody 24/7, there’s no respite, so the abuse is going to increase whether it’s verbal, emotional, mental, physical and even financial. And unfortunately, we have less contact with our victims because they don’t get a reprieve. A lot of it is emotional in the sense that there’s name calling; it’s a lot of the subtleties that we overlook in everyday society. It’s humiliation. You didn’t cook dinner appropriately. Most of us are going to move on, but what victims are going to hear is, “How stupid can you be? Don’t you know how to follow a recipe?” And so it’s all of that name calling, humiliation and putting down, which tears down a victim. A lot of self-confidence dies along the way.

But you also have other things. Most abusers control all the finances in a household and, right now, those finances may be even more dire because one or both parties may not be working. Trying to pay the bills becomes more of a stress that adds to the level of the abuse. Neighbors overlook things of that nature. Therefore, in those cases, victims are less likely to get assistance. They’re really left on their own because of all those subtleties that we overlook and don’t think of as being domestic abuse.

And, because there’s no reprieve, you’re unable to separate the victim from the abuser so that they have an opportunity to leave. Under the best of conditions, leaving is the most dangerous time and more victims are at risk of dying while attempting to leave and within two years of having left. Right now, they don’t have that window of opportunity to leave even if they wanted to.

What is the effect that witnessing abuse can have on children who now may be isolated with their parents?

First of all, they’re going to see it and they’re going to hear it. It is amazing what children know in their own homes. They know pretty much everything, even though we think we’re hiding stuff. But children who grow up in violent homes grow up to generally either be abusers or be victims.

This is a learned behavior for the majority of those who are abusers and even for some victims. If I grow up in a violent home, then this is what I think a normal relationship is. Then, if I get into an abusive relationship and I’m the victim, I’m going to think this is normal. Trying to break that cycle becomes really difficult and, right now, children are being exposed more and more because it’s 24/7.

But it’s also going to impact them in terms of learning because many schools are still closed and children are learning remotely. If you’re in a violent environment, you may be missing class more than ever. Going to school sometimes is their reprieve and their ability to get away from it all. They’re not getting that break either.

How can social workers, helping professionals and concerned individuals safely connect with IPV survivors and offer support during the pandemic?

We’re all trying to think outside of the box.

Sometimes the abuser will let victims and kids go to the market or to the food bank and they don’t go with them. It’s that one moment when you’ve got a victim separated from the abuser where you have the ability to make information available. A lot of advocates are volunteering at food banks, with information that’s out on tables, and are available to talk if somebody discloses.

Victims who have access to cellphones are texting for resources and then immediately deleting all the text messages. They just go into the bathroom, lock the door, text a message and then delete it and we know that they need help. 

Some programs that work with victims are calling the victims, but they’re calling on the basis of checking in. Staff are asking, “Do you have enough supplies? Do you need toilet paper? Do you need diapers?” This lets victims know that somebody is still available and it’s also a call that the abuser isn’t going to question because you’re calling to ask them if they need assistance.

If it’s a client that they’ve had, code words or code phrases are a fairly innocuous way of telling somebody you need help that isn’t going to alert the abuser. They might say, “I’m calling because you asked if we needed something. We’re out of coffee.” That says, “I’m really in trouble right now. I need you to get me help and resources.” 

Code words are one of the things that we talk a great deal about within the IPV movement and with shelters and advocates – we always have to find ways of staying two steps ahead of the abuser. Code words, code phrases or hand signals may work, until the abuser catches on. You’re going to have to change them often if the victim is staying with the abuser. 

How can social workers more broadly help to put an end to IPV and domestic abuse?

Whether there’s a pandemic or not, we all need to routinely ask our clients if they are in a violent relationship. We should explain that this is something we ask all of our clients and that, if they are in a violent relationship, we have resources. Initially, they may say, “No.” But, you’ve planted the seed and that’s always the key. 

Social workers need to have good resources available and know where good shelters are located. I tell my students, “Know where the mental health resources are and know the good medical personnel because we’re all interconnected and interrelated.”

We also need to educate neighbors that it’s OK to call 911. Neighbors hear yelling and screaming and think, “There they go again.” We all need to be on the alert that IPV can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor or in between. It doesn’t matter if it’s same-sex or heterosexual. It also doesn’t matter based on race or color. It happens everywhere. 

If we want to stop violence in the streets, if we want to stop violence in the workplace, if we, even to some degree, want to stop wars that may happen, a lot of it starts in violent homes. If we don’t stop violence in our homes, we’re not going to stop it anywhere else. When a mass shooting occurs, we often overlook that this is somebody who actually grew up in a violent home and, usually, they’ve committed an incident of domestic violence before they went on a mass shooting spree.

Therefore, we all need to take this seriously and go out and advocate on behalf of victims. Also on behalf of the abusers, because if we don’t heal abusers as well, then we only heal part of the problem.

If you or somebody you know is experiencing intimate partner violence, call the free, confidential National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. The hotline is free, confidential and available 24/7.

Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.