Domestic Abuse Concerns Rise as the Pandemic Drags On
As the coronavirus gripped the world in the spring, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned of another “shadow” pandemic that could not be slowed by masks or hand washing.
“We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19, but they can trap women with abusive partners,” Guterres said on April 5. “Over the past weeks, as the economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying surge in domestic violence.”
While nations such as France and Mexico reported troubling spikes in domestic violence, others did not. In southwestern Pennsylvania, calls to crisis hotlines and women’s shelters actually declined from 2019 levels during the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic.
But local shelter officials are under no illusion that the region will be spared. The early crisis-call numbers belie what they are experiencing in their shelters and among their clients.
The pandemic has exacerbated common triggers of abuse, such as stress, unemployment and financial insecurity. Many jobs lost early in the pandemic haven’t yet returned and others are being performed remotely. Victims are more likely to spend more time with their abusers than before and have fewer opportunities to contact help. Not surprisingly, once social restrictions were relaxed in the summer, the number of calls for help began to increase.
“That’s unfortunately what we’re seeing with our clients,” said Nicole Molinaro, president and chief executive officer of the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. “We know that there are new instances of domestic violence. We know that there are increases in severity and frequency of domestic violence. And it may not be reported because, at the same time, the ability to reach out for help decreases. It forms a perfect storm.”
Power and control
Intimate partner violence is a type of domestic violence that involves people in a close, often romantic, relationship. It is a particular concern during the pandemic. Rates were already high: About one in four women have experienced sexual violence, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’re not talking about something that happens one time, but a pattern of power and control that includes abuse,” Molinaro said. “When you think power and control and you think of the pandemic striking, it makes sense that intimate partner violence would increase.”
Intimate partner violence is seen among people of all races, genders, sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds. But it disproportionately affects certain populations.
For many, the financial support of an abusive partner prevents a victim from leaving—a situation complicated by the economic fallout of the pandemic. Unemployment is widespread, but has hit women of color, immigrants and workers without a college education hardest, according to a recent report by Pew Research Center.
“We all feel like the world is out of our control right now and it’s hard not to feel like that,” Molinaro said. “If someone already tends to use and abuse power and control, that lack of control you feel in the world overall can be triggering. Add onto that unemployment, food insecurity, having to wear a mask, having to isolate, everything that’s really critical to our health in public can be difficult.”
Calm before the storm
Most indicators of domestic abuse in southwestern Pennsylvania, such as crisis hotline calls and shelter clients, have followed a trend from exceptionally lower numbers during the early months of the pandemic to increasingly higher cases as the social restrictions have loosened.
In March, the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh hotline received 48 percent fewer crisis calls than average. In June and July, the hotline received 33 percent fewer crisis calls than average.
The nonprofit also saw the number of clients who came to it for help drop by 40 percent in April compared to the previous year. But in July and August, the center and shelter caseload recovered to previous-year levels and was climbing.
Calls to Crisis Center North, a nonprofit that provides counseling and resources to victims of domestic violence, dropped by about half in April compared to the previous year, according to Hilary O’Toole, assistant director. As social restrictions were eased, hotline calls rose and by July were greater than the previous year.
The Domestic Violence Unit at the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police reported a 2.7 percent increase in report of intimate partner violence from March 22 to June 6, 2020, compared to the same period last year.
“We have not seen a huge increase in intimate partner violence related calls,” said Lavonnie Bickerstaff, assistant chief of investigations, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. “We don’t want to see any domestic violence and even what we saw last year is too many.”
The decline in hotline calls was not unexpected. Most people who experience intimate partner violence don’t seek help, and the pandemic presents additional barriers to seeking help—including finding a safe space to make the call.
“A lot of times, victims of domestic violence will call us during the day,” O’Toole said. “They’ll set up appointments with our counselors during the daytime. That means that their abuser is at work or out of the home and they’re able to find a safe space. What happened during the pandemic is that people weren’t able to leave their house and reach out. They were stuck. Not only did COVID keep everyone in a confined space together, but it added extra stressors. With the added stress, the violence increases, and people are unable to get the help they need. It’s a horrible, vicious cycle that we’re seeing right now.”
Protection from abuse order filings in Allegheny County showed similar patterns. Filings for orders were down 33 percent from March 15 through April 18 compared to the same period last year. Since then, they have been steadily rising. Weekly protection from abuse filings were as much as nine percent higher in August than the previous year.
Adapting to crisis
“If you are already in a relationship that is abusive, we have been seeing, pretty much across the board, that the abuse is increasing in frequency and severity,” Molinaro said. “If you are someone who tends toward using power, but hasn’t tended toward abuse, we’ve found that abuse has started. We’re not talking about healthy relationships turning abusive. But if it’s a relationship that uses power and control, it has really started to escalate.”
The Women’s Center and Shelter surveyed their clients on the impact of the pandemic and found their primary concerns were “the ability to reach out for help, safety plans being impacted, not able to save money, an increase in the severity and frequency of abuse and partners not obeying custody orders.”
All domestic violence programs have been open and operating throughout the pandemic. But finding ways to reach and help victims of abuse has been a challenge.
“The initial shock of all of it was the hardest thing to come to terms with—that we couldn’t see the clients as often,” O’Toole said. “Even though we were open, a lot of people didn’t feel safe to come out, so figuring out how to adapt our programs [was a challenge].”
The Women’s Center and Shelter’s emergency shelter has been operating at capacity throughout the pandemic, employing CDC guidelines around cleaning, wearing masks and social distancing. The nonprofit has also provided hotel rooms for clients and families who are immunocompromised and cannot stay in a communal space.
Many programs have been utilizing technology in a way they haven’t before. Programs such as group therapy have gone at least partially online.
“We’ve changed everything but the heart of the work,” Molinaro said. “We have been wanting to work on doing PFAs remotely, so the victim doesn’t have to come to court multiple times. We’re not fully there yet, but in Allegheny County, they’re working to get there.”
For support group and therapy clients, both Crisis Center North and the Women’s Center and Shelter have found many clients who prefer the ease of remote therapy. “We have a few clients who drove a far way to get to therapy and were considering leaving group before the pandemic,” Molinaro said. “But they were able to continue because they’ve been able to do it remotely.”
Making plans on how to leave an abusive relationship, known as safety planning, has been difficult during the pandemic. Local organizations noted an increase of calls of concern from neighbors and family members of people in abusive relationships. In some cases, counselors instruct them on the process of safety planning so they can relay the instructions to their friend or relative.
The Women’s Center and Shelter also started a text and chat line on May 1 to help victims report abuse and seek help. In July, the number of texts were more than twice the number they received in the first two months of the program.
Meanwhile, shelters fear the worst is yet to come. “We anticipate a surge over the next year to two years,” Molinaro said. “People are still working from home. There’s still less leeway to make calls. We’re starting to see an increase in calls. And we’re seeing that clients who we’ve been serving have more needs. We expect this to continue.”