Urban Wire We Need to Do More to Support Victims of Domestic Violence during the Pandemic
Storm Ervin, Sara Bastomski
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Each year in the US, nearly 7 million women and 5.7 million men are victims of domestic violence. As the COVID-19 pandemic takes a toll on communities around the world, domestic violence victims face a unique set of challenges to their safety and well-being.  

In times of crisis—including the Great Recession and after natural disasters—evidence shows that risk of domestic violence increases for some women. Alarmingly, new data suggest the current crisis is no exception.

What’s behind the increased frequency and severity of abuse?

Domestic violence calls for service spiked during March in many US cities. In New York City alone, domestic violence calls to police were up 7 percent between January 1 and late March this year, relative to the same period in 2019.

This trend is consistent with global increases in domestic violence associated with lockdown orders, which recently led the United Nations to call for increased advocacy to address violence against women and girls.

It is also possible these spikes actually underestimate increases in domestic violence, as victims at home with an abusive partner may have a harder time seeking help.

Many factors might contribute to these surges. Unemployment and financial hardship caused or exacerbated by the pandemic are likely to play a role—both factors contribute to domestic violence.

Stay-at-home orders—which currently affect 95 percent of Americans—are especially difficult for victims living with an abusive partner. Being inside together for longer periods of time may increase opportunities for abuse. Some studies indicate that abuse increases around holidays, when families spend more time together.

At the same time, victims may have a much harder time staying in touch with family and friends, limiting access to social support that might mitigate abuse. People who abuse their partners also have greater opportunity to control a victim’s behavior by monitoring who the victim calls or limiting access to essential goods, like soap, that are particularly important during this pandemic.

How courts, victim services providers, and communities can help

Under routine circumstances, many domestic violence victims confront barriers to accessing the help they need. With the onset of this global pandemic, new barriers emerged that require innovative solutions in domestic violence responses.  

Although Congress earmarked $47 million for family and domestic violence prevention and services via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, we are only just beginning to understand what victims need to weather the COVID-19 crisis.

Courts, victim services agencies, and communities must work together to help victims navigate the new and complex challenges of simultaneously dealing with COVID-19 and abusive situations. Below are four ways they can respond.

Extending orders of protection and virtually petitioning for new orders of protection

Victims may file for orders of protection (also called restraining orders) with civil or criminal court. With major court systems postponing nonessential cases and moving essential cases to virtual platforms, some may struggle to stay up-to-date on how to access and navigate the system.

To keep people who cause harm away from victims, some localities are extending temporary orders of protection until the next scheduled court date, meaning temporary orders will remain in effect until courts are open and officials can set a new court date to establish a longer-term order of protection.

Additionally, some Family Justice Centers are available by phone to assist victims with legal help around orders of protection, and they can now help victims remotely file and obtain an order of protection in virtual court.

Extending remote support and services

Victims who suffer physical injuries from abuse need immediate medical attention, and routine office visits provide medical providers an opportunity to screen for abuse and help victims.

But as health care systems strain to respond to COVID-19 cases, access to emergency and routine services has become more limited. At the same time, victims may fear leaving their homes to seek care because of risk of coronavirus exposure.  

Although domestic violence shelters have been issued guidance on preventing the transmission of COVID-19, some victims are leaving domestic violence shelters out of fear of exposure, and others may avoid seeking shelter services in the first place.

Victim services providers can extend virtual and remote services to assist victims while practicing social distancing. Domestic violence hotlines are still available during the pandemic, and agencies can provide therapy, counseling, and case work services to victims virtually without putting either party at risk.  

Victims can schedule telehealth appointments through phone calls to victim services agencies or advocates, and doctors are using telehealth for medical appointments for (nonemergency) injuries that would normally require in-person visits. The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) offers best practices on how to use mobile devices to securely support victims.

Explaining to victims how stay-at-home orders apply to them

With policy responses to COVID-19 rapidly changing, victims may find it challenging to find the information they need to make the right decisions for them. Terminology and provisions of stay-at-home orders vary by state, and there are many reasons—such as limited internet access, language barriers, or an abuser’s deliberate misinformation—victims may have trouble knowing whether it is safe or even permissible to leave their homes and seek services.

Courts and victim services providers should communicate to victims when they reach out about how to interpret a stay-at-home order if they are in a dangerous situation in their homes.

Engaging neighbors, family, and friends—from a distance

Neighbors, family, and friends may be the first to become aware of an abusive situation and can help respond. The NNEDV compiled tips on how to help friends who experience domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. For concerned relatives and friends who want to know where to point victims, WomensLaw.org compiled a list of victim advocates and shelters in every state.

Before the pandemic, domestic violence had a devastating impact on the lives of too many. Now that COVID-19 has forced people into their homes for indefinite periods of time, service providers, court systems, and others who care must be even more responsive to and supportive of vulnerable populations, especially people and families affected by domestic violence.


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Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags COVID-19
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center