Domestic Violence During COVID-19
Since California’s Safer at Home Order was enacted, calls to the Los Angeles County’s Domestic Violence Hotline (800-978-3600) have more than doubled. Other areas across the country are seeing similar trends. However, experts suspect that the coronavirus outbreak may be aggravating existing patterns of domestic violence, rather than causing such abuse. Domestic violence is already prevalent in the United States, with 1 out of 4 women and 1 out of 9 men experiencing physical abuse, sexual violence, and/or stalking. Domestic violence is also highly correlated with child abuse; it is estimated that 40% of children who have experienced physical abuse are part of a family unit in which there are incidences of domestic violence. Therefore, in order to protect children’s physical and emotional safety, it is important for child welfare advocates to be alert to possible domestic violence exposure.
What is Domestic Violence?
Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviors used by one person to attempt to obtain control and power over another person, in the context of a current or former relationship. Such behaviors can range from physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, reproductive coercion, or stalking; or the threat of any of these behaviors. Domestic violence can happen to anyone- including men, people who are not married, LGBTQ+ individuals, and the elderly. Survivors of domestic violence come from all socio-economic, racial, and religious backgrounds.
What Does Domestic Violence Look Like?
Domestic violence can take on many different forms. One does not need to experience physical abuse to be a survivor of domestic violence. Emotional abuse, reproductive coercion, financial abuse or stalking can be equally as devastating as physical abuse and sexual abuse. Survivors of all types of abuse deserve empathy and support.
Some signs of domestic violence include, but are not limited to:
- Discouraging a partner from seeing family or friends through direct or indirect means (an example of indirect means can be such as showing jealousy)
- Controlling or attempting to control what an individual wears or where they go
- Repeatedly embarrassing or belittling a partner or previous partner
- Controlling an individual’s finances
- Threatening to hurt or take away someone’s children
- Threatening to hurt themselves if the partner decides to leave a relationship
- Refusing to use condoms or other forms of birth control when having sex, or purposefully impairing an individual from using birth control (such as throwing away a partner’s birth control pills)
- Destroying the property of a partner or former partner
- Threatening to ‘out’ an LGBTQ+ individual to their family and friends if they end the relationship
- Threatening to call immigration authorities to an undocumented individual if they leave a relationship
These are a few signs of abusive behavior. If you are unsure if your partner, previous partner, or friend’s behavior is considered abusive, you can contact the resources listed in the section below called Resources for Domestic Violence.
Effects of Domestic Violence
Domestic violence can have various short-term and long-term effects on survivor’s health. Some short-term consequences of domestic violence can include bruising, broken bones, lacerations, fatigue, muscle tension or changes in sleeping and eating habits. Survivors of domestic violence are at an increased risk for developing long-term physical and mental health conditions, such as heart problems, migraines, digestive conditions, depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Additionally, domestic violence not only affects direct victims, but family members as well. Exposure to domestic violence (without suffering direct abuse) can be a traumatizing event for children and adults. Children who witness such violence are at a greater risk for depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorders. Youth who are exposed to abuse in the home also have higher incidences of aggression, difficulty following directives, and delinquency, compared to their peers.
Impact of COVID-19 on Domestic Violence
There are many different reasons why social service professionals and researchers consider that domestic violence calls have increased during the coronavirus pandemic. One of the main reasons is that with physical distancing guidelines, people are encouraged to stay in their home. This may cause further isolation from supportive people, including family, friends, and coworkers. Victims may have a harder time seeking professional services as well due to lack of privacy (such as worrying that their abuser may overhear them).
Furthermore, due to increased unemployment rates, fear about contracting the virus, struggling to assist children with distance learning, and other pressures, the outbreak of COVID-19 has added strain for everyone. Elevations in stress levels, while they do not cause or justify abuse, have been associated with an increase in domestic violence. This is because domestic violence is a pattern of behavior enacted (consciously or subconsciously) to gain power and control. If an individual is feeling out of control due to having been laid off or is worried about what the future might hold due to the virus, they may be more likely to lash out at another person to regain their sense of power.
Additionally, perpetrators of domestic violence may use concerns related to the virus to further intimidate or alienate their partners. There have been reports of perpetrators threatening to kick their partners out if they become sick, preventing individuals from obtaining hand sanitizer or masks, or warning their partners that they will withhold medical care should they become infected. Through such threats, perpetrators may attempt to gain more further control over individuals and discourage them from leaving.
Resources for Domestic Violence
Even during this difficult time, there are still resources to help survivors of abuse. If you are an immediate danger or harm, please call 911. Nationally, for non-emergent matters, survivors can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or chat on the website. In Los Angeles, victims and survivors can call the LA County Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-978-3600. Throughout the nation, many domestic violence shelters are still open (call the National Domestic Violence Hotline to be directed to shelters in your state or area). In Los Angeles, people can call 310-281-2822 (managed by Peace Over Violence) if they are looking for a domestic violence shelter (contact information for specific shelters in the greater Los Angeles region can also be found here). It is important to note that courts are still open for emergency protection orders and temporary restraining orders. Contacts for legal assistance as it relates to domestic violence in Los Angeles can be found here.
Survivors can begin to think about how to maintain their safety at all stages of the relationship (in the relationship, planning to leave the relationship, and when leaving) by making a safety plan. Considerations for safety planning in general, and for specific situations (for people with children, pets, etc.), can be found at the National Domestic Violence Hotline and from Sanctuary for Families. As mentioned in the Sanctuary for Families’s website, it is highly recommended that victims share their safety plan and seek help from supportive contacts, such as friends, family members, or domestic violence advocates. Friends and family can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline to inquire how to help in cases of reported or suspected domestic violence, or can look at the website for more information as well. People who perpetrate abuse or are worried that their behavior may be abusive can also call or chat with the National Domestic Violence Hotline to seek help in changing their behavior.
How Does Children’s Bureau Help?
Children’s Bureau therapists assist families who are experiencing domestic violence by working with non-violent adults and their children in making safety plans. Children’s Bureau clinicians also aid families in connecting with domestic violence agencies that can provide more specialized resources and support. Children’s Bureau therapists also help children and families understand the impact of witnessing domestic violence. Through our counseling for kids program, mental health professionals engage youth in processing the trauma in a safe environment.
Additionally, Children’s Bureau prevention programs- through case management, parenting classes and programs, and home visiting programs, among others- support in preventing domestic violence through education about healthy relationships, assistance in obtaining resources that might lower stress levels, and by building community (reducing isolation for potential victims).
Lastly, foster care, adoption and related services also play a role in addressing domestic violence; by allowing children who have witnessed domestic violence in their families of origin to be connected with a resource family who can provide a safe environment for them.
Even though physical distancing and the coronavirus pandemic may increase the stress for survivors of domestic violence, it is important to remember that there are resources accessible. We want to remind you that you are not alone in these difficult times.
Isabel Checa, ACSW, MPH
Isabel is a Mental Health Therapist at the Children’s Bureau. She has a Master’s of Social Work and Master’s of Public Health from Boston University, with a focus on clinical social work, maternal and child health, and epidemiology.