There is clear and convincing evidence that both the rate and severity of intimate partner violence (IPV) in the United States increased in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.1→Alex R. Piquero et al., “Staying Home, Staying Safe? A Short-Term Analysis of COVID-19 on Dallas Domestic Violence,” American Journal of Criminal Justice 45 (2020): 601–635.
→Leila Wood et al., “‘Don’t Know Where to Go for Help’: Safety and Economic Needs among Violence Survivors during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Journal of Family Violence (2021). IPV and sexual assault (SA) hotlines across the country saw a particular uptake in the use of services like chat and text-based engagement, which can be accessed by a survivor silently while in close proximity to an abusive individual.2→National Network to End Domestic Violence, 15th Annual Domestic Violence Counts Report (Washington, DC: NNEDV, 2021).
→Leila Wood et al., “On the Front Lines of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Occupational Experiences of the Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Assault Workforce,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, December 17, 2020. While survivors have dealt with escalating violence, the voluntary service sector, which aims to support them, worked to balance meeting their needs with social distancing requirements and other uncertainties, leading to reduced service capacities.3NNEDV, 15th Annual Report. Faced with a quickly evolving pandemic, service providers and policymakers need information to guide their efforts to address changing survivor and community needs. The aim of our research over the first nine months of the pandemic (March–December 2020) was to understand the experiences of violence survivors and service providers in the context of the pandemic, specifically to support adaptations in service delivery and survivor safety planning, which are central to the lifesaving work of these programs. Through semistructured interviews, we learned from over 50 IPV and SA survivors and violence prevention and intervention service providers about their experiences during the coronavirus pandemic response in the United States. These interviews built on our web-based survey of over 500 advocates and survivors conducted in the first 10 weeks of the pandemic response (April–May 2020), providing new insight into how survivors and service providers dealt with emerging challenges, including changes in safety planning strategies, service capacity, and service modality, as the Covid-19 pandemic has evolved.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that approximately 81 million individuals in the United States experience sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.4Michele C. Black et al., The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report (Atlanta: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011). These experiences lead to a wide range of serious physical and mental health impacts, as well as economic, educational, and intergenerational consequences.5Sharon G. Smith et al., The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2015 Data Brief – Updated Release (Atlanta: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). For survivors of violence, accessing domestic and sexual violence services can increase safety, reduce the risk of homicide, and improve long-term physical and mental health outcomes.“Historically, safety plans have been geared toward helping people leave violent situations and have focused on safe escape strategies and accessing formal supports like law enforcement or shelter.”
A central component of these services is collaborative work between a survivor and advocate to develop a “safety plan,” which is a personalized plan for how to deal with the immediate, individual risks faced by survivors of violence and their children, aiming to reduce the extent and impact of violence.6Sage, 2014More Info → Historically, safety plans have been geared toward helping people leave violent situations and have focused on safe escape strategies and accessing formal supports like law enforcement or shelter. A paradigm shift in the last decade has extended the focus of safety planning for those who do not or cannot plan to leave a potentially abusive situation and those who chose not to engage with formal helping systems such as law enforcement or child welfare due to histories of discrimination.7Jill Davies, Victim-Defined Advocacy beyond Leaving: Safer through Strategies to Reduce Violent Behavior (Harrisburg, PA: National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, 2019). However, the evidence base for safety planning is still heavily focused on physical distance-driven approaches. This limits its applicability within the context of social distancing, wherein survivors face new safety challenges and increased internal and societal pressure to remain, at least temporarily, in abusive home environments in order to reduce disease spread or maintain a child’s access to both parents.
A second key area of change for survivors and service providers in the wake of Covid-19 has been the role of technology in service access and provision. Due to a combination of factors, including concerns over the potential safety risks created by digital surveillance by an abusive partner, the cost of technology infrastructure, and an already stretched-thin workforce, the violence prevention and intervention field had not widely adopted virtual service provisions prior to the coronavirus pandemic.8Laura Brignone and Jeffrey L. Edleson, “The Dating and Domestic Violence App Rubric: Synthesizing Clinical Best Practices and Digital Health App Standards for Relationship Violence Prevention Smartphone Apps,” International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction 35, no. 19 (2019): 1859–1869. The pandemic created a situation in which service providers have adapted to new intervention frameworks such as shifting safety planning strategies to fit a social-distanced reality, while also moving to new service delivery platforms and learning new technologies. Service providers faced significant strain as first responders to an evolving crisis with minimal financial resources available to support these adaptations. We sought to learn about these changes from our interviews with survivors and service providers in order to better equip the field to continue its lifesaving work with survivors and their children. Our key findings in this area are summarized here, with a focus on changes in survivor safety and safety planning and changes in service provision.
Changes in survivor safety and safety planning“Survivors described choosing to follow social distancing protocols to protect themselves and their children from Covid, even as they faced increasing violence and coercion within their locked-down homes.”
Survivors and advocates described the increased frequency and severity of violence in stark terms. Survivors described making choices between threats to their health from Covid and threats to their health and safety from IPV. Survivors described choosing to follow social distancing protocols to protect themselves and their children from Covid, even as they faced increasing violence and coercion within their locked-down homes. One survivor talked about seeing their own mental health, and the mental health of their children, impacted by inescapable verbal abuse in the early days of the pandemic, even as they stayed in their home environment to protect their physical health from the unknowns of the virus. Another survivor described the ways that the experience of lockdown and loss of control brought back memories of previous abusive and controlling relationships, stating: “Mentally, I feel at first I was down about everything, I was just really confused and I felt like I didn’t have control over a lot of things…I think the most toll that it took was just having that sense of helplessness and it brought back how I felt before.” There is also clear evidence of increasingly lethal violence. As one program leader said: “The domestic violence and the shootings and the killings have escalated through the roof here…We’ve already surpassed our [county IPV homicide] total for 2019. We surpassed it by July 4th. Before March 1, we had no homicides.” These reflections are in line with national data trends in the United States, as a systematic review and meta analyses of US-based studies found an 8.1 percent increase in IPV associated with Covid-19–related restrictions.9Alex R. Piquero et al., “Domestic Violence during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Evidence from A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Criminal Justice 74 (May–June 2021).
We also heard that lockdown and social distancing could contribute to an abusive partners’ playbook of coercive and controlling tactics, impacting survivors’ autonomy, as well as their access to potentially lifesaving services. One advocate shared that they were hearing about abusive partners using social distancing guidelines to justify increased surveillance, limiting survivors’ abilities to access services through previously useful methods. She said: “[for] survivors who haven’t left their abusers, it’s harder because now their abusers expect to know where they are more often. Before they could say, ‘Oh, I’m going out to lunch with my daughter.’ Then they’d physically come to our building.” The increased focus on technology to facilitate connection also facilitated the abusive tactics of some partners. One advocate shared that during Covid-19, they saw a significant uptick in “abusers taking the technology away from their victim,” with this limiting survivors’ access to friends and family for support, as well as the service providers’ ability to provide support in general. This advocate reflected that, without the ability to be physically present or to access safe strategies for virtual services, they felt like “all [they could] really do in that situation is give them (survivors) an emergency phone that they can use to call 911.”“Safety planning requires individualized care that considers the unique mix of dynamics, including histories of discrimination and oppression as well as specific batterer-created risks, that each survivor faces.”
The suggestion to call 911 as an intervention service of last resort was similarly echoed in our web-based survey findings, with 83 percent of participating service providers reporting that they suggested calling 911 to a client during the first 10 weeks of the pandemic. This is compared to only 18 percent of the survivors we surveyed who reported that they chose to contact the police to deal with a safety concern they faced.10→Leila Wood et al., “On the Front Lines of the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
→Leila Wood et al., “‘Don’t Know Where to go for Help’.” This discrepancy underscores other evidence that survivors, especially from Black and Brown communities, may not view police or other formal first responders as safe avenues for addressing potentially violent situations, which is particularly salient in a time of increased public attention to police brutality against racialized minority communities.11→Lisa Fedina et al., “Police Legitimacy, Trustworthiness, and Associations with Intimate Partner Violence,” Policing: An International Journal 42, no. 5 (2019): 901–916.
→Bernadine Waller, Jalana Harris, and Camille R. Quinn, “Caught in the Crossroad: An Intersectional Examination of African American Women Intimate Partner Violence Survivors’ Help Seeking,” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, February 18, 2021. Safety planning requires individualized care that considers the unique mix of dynamics, including histories of discrimination and oppression as well as specific batterer-created risks, that each survivor faces. Service providers must recognize that engaging with law enforcement to address one safety concern could bring up other safety concerns for survivors. As service providers emerge from the pandemic, safety planning efforts at the individual and community levels should address the structural consequences of IPV and sexual assault and the intersection with discrimination.
Shifts in how services are provided
Not only have survivors faced severe violence over the course of the pandemic, but service providers have dealt with rapid, compounding changes to their service delivery systems. Two key issues emerged when discussing changes in IPV and SA services. First, housing programs, including emergency shelters, faced reduced capacities and a wide range of challenges in maintaining services in the context of social distancing. Second, advocates were faced with a rapid shift to partly or completely virtual programming, often with limited financial or technical resources and little previous experience.
Emergency shelter and transitional housing programs are two primary avenues through which IPV service agencies support survivors and intervene in crisis situations. Interviews demonstrated that the pandemic heightened the perceived risk of seeking housing help, particularly in emergency shelter programs, which often include communal living. As one advocate shared, “It already takes a leap of faith for a survivor to come to a shelter. So, they were literally afraid to seek safe harbor at a shelter because of the virus. So that increases danger in a huge way.” Many advocates shared that programs immediately reduced their shelter capacity to allow for social distancing and to create isolation rooms in the case of a positive Covid case. Some shelters required participants, including families with multiple young children, to remain in their rooms at all times in an effort to reduce the risk of community transmission, while others implemented quarantine protocols upon entering the shelter. Collectively, these efforts reduced the capacity of agencies to meet survivor housing needs just as IPV incidents and lethality were escalating across the country. As leaders begin to take stock of the lessons of Covid, the importance of providing access to emergency funds so that agencies can creatively address capacity issues should be made clear. Options highlighted in our study to increase safe housing capacity in future public health emergencies include the use of FEMA trailers to add socially distanced emergency housing capacity or using emergency funds for hotel stays or additional transitional housing vouchers.
Virtual service provision
“Along with needing to develop new technological and safety assessment skills to support this rapid service shift, staff also highlighted the unexpected financial strain, particularly for a service sector that has previously avoided adopting new technologies.” Even prior to the pandemic, IPV and SA agencies had begun to incorporate some virtual services, such as chat and text-based emergency hotlines.12Danielle C. Slakoff, Wendy Aujla, and Eva PenzeyMoog, “The Role of Service Providers, Technology, and Mass Media When Home Isn’t Safe for Intimate Partner Violence Victims: Best Practices and Recommendations in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 49, no. 8 (2020): 2779–2788. However, virtual services exploded in use in the first week of the pandemic. The advocates we talked to echoed the emerging importance of this adaptation, as well as the challenges of their “new normal” in this area. For many advocates, shifting to virtual services opened questions related to the safety of the survivor on the other side of their screen. One advocate shared “[Safety] is…the first thing we’re talking about. Normally they’d be in my office so I could see that and know like we’re in the same place and the abuser is not here. I don’t know that if someone video chats…so literally the very first thing we’re saying is… ‘I’m wondering if you’re safe right now. I’m wondering if, uh, someone could walk in and if so, what are plans?’” Along with needing to develop new technological and safety assessment skills to support this rapid service shift, staff also highlighted the unexpected financial strain, particularly for a service sector that has previously avoided adopting new technologies. One program leader shared that they had spent “literally tens of thousands of dollars on [new technology].” In the next decade, these services will increasingly move online. Along with developing strategies to address the safety risks inherent in virtual services, program grants to support upgraded hardware, software, and staff training will be a critical component of expanding service access. National efforts, like the work being led by the National Network to End Domestic Violence Safety Net Project will be critical in rapidly moving this work forward. These programs increase the capacity of service providers to safely use technology with survivors and equip survivors with information on identifying technology facilitated abuse and safely using technology to access support and document abuse.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, survivors of IPV and SA have faced new health and safety challenges. Our conversations with survivors and advocates underscore the tightrope that they have been walking, balancing safety from violence with safety from the virus. Survivors and their advocates have continued their critical work while dealing with changing service modalities, capacities, and limitations. Evolving safety planning practices have sought to support survivors in managing these sometimes-competing aims, while shifts in the format of services have aimed to keep resources available and safe for advocates and survivors alike. An increased focus on virtual and technology-based service provision, and clear examples of technology facilitated abuse, will be a lasting legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic for IPV services and survivors. Moving forward, our formal and informal community response to interpersonal violence must be accelerated to meet the diverse needs of survivors, with federal, state, local, and private funding to match. Future planning should include a recognition of the role of domestic violence service agencies in community response plans, opening access to resources for personal protective equipment, emergency housing support, and recognizing advocates as emergency first responders. Financial and policy support focused on expanding access to technology, training, and flexible funding to meet the basic needs of survivors will improve community health and safety long after the pandemic.
Banner photo: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash.
→Leila Wood et al., “‘Don’t Know Where to Go for Help’: Safety and Economic Needs among Violence Survivors during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Journal of Family Violence (2021).
→Leila Wood et al., “On the Front Lines of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Occupational Experiences of the Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Assault Workforce,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, December 17, 2020.
→Leila Wood et al., “‘Don’t Know Where to go for Help’.”
→Bernadine Waller, Jalana Harris, and Camille R. Quinn, “Caught in the Crossroad: An Intersectional Examination of African American Women Intimate Partner Violence Survivors’ Help Seeking,” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, February 18, 2021.