As governors around the country release executive orders to shelter-in-place, many are bracing for the irreparable harm caused by closing businesses and keeping people at home. The job loss numbers are expected to be as high as 47 million with unemployment at 31 percent when all is said and done. But lawmakers must also consider the secondary effects of containing the virus. Every measure taken to decrease risk of the virus spreading increases risk in other areas, such as domestic violence.
This is the reality and burden of leadership. The longer local economies are shut down and people are out of work and afraid to leave their homes, the harder it becomes for victims of domestic abuse. Domestic violence, or intimate partner violence, is an escalating behavior exacerbated by crisis.
Not only are victims now shut in with their abusers, but emergency responders have new restrictions and guidelines, making it much harder to get help. Because of the coronavirus, victims of domestic violence have the added fear of going outside or seeking help. They may feel as though they have no safe place to go.
Domestic Violence Rates Are Rising
In March, domestic violence instances rose dramatically in cities around the country. In Seattle, police reported a 21 percent increase in domestic abuse reports. Police in Charlotte, North Carolina expect to see a 17 percent increase due to the shelter-in-place restrictions. The Las Cruces, New Mexico Police Department reported a 9 percent increase in domestic violence-related calls, with a 21 percent increase in San Antonio, Texas, and a 33 percent increase in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Domestic violence, especially against women, is a serious public health issue across the globe. A 2010 summary report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men “have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports an average of 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner, or more than 10 million women and men a year. Those numbers could be even higher if you consider many victims don’t ever report abuse. A recent editorial in the British Journal of Medicine looked at domestic violence against women in Western countries and found that only 2.5 percent to 15 percent of victims report their abuse.
The National Network to End Domestic Violence found that in relationships where abuse was already present, financial stress increased the severity and frequency of abuse. Intimate partner violence is also three times more likely when the couple is facing a financial crisis. Economic hardship doesn’t cause the violence, but it worsens it.
Abuse is about exerting and maintaining control over the victim. Job loss and financial trouble threaten an abuser’s ability to control the victim, triggering the aggressor to become more violent to feel in control.
Additionally, an abuser will likely leverage fears about the virus to keep the abused beholden to them. The job loss crisis, created by government restrictions, puts some victims in the immediate vicinity of their abusers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is no relief, nor hope of relief, in sight.
Teresa Burns, the manager of a women’s shelter in St. Paul, Minnesota, explains in a recent New York Times article that “many who may have felt safe once their partner left for work or their children were at school now live without any window of relief as businesses and schools shutter.” The abused partner and his or her children are now imprisoned with an abuser whose behavior will likely get much worse.
Survivors of domestic abuse are also having to cope with government restrictions shutting down support groups and transitioning individual therapy to teletherapy. People who are already vulnerable and afraid are thrust into an uncertain future with very few in-person therapy resources available. The need for proximity in therapy can be an important part of the healing process, especially for people with severe mental health issues.
Victims Need the Hope of an End Point
As current unemployment numbers continue to rise faster than some state agencies can process them, many are hoping to find relief in the recently passed $2 trillion stimulus package. For many this is coming too late, considering a third of Americans have someone in their household who has either taken a pay cut or lost a job due to the Wuhan coronavirus.
This means more people are now living with the economic fallout created by government responses to coronavirus than are affected by the virus itself. The degree to which the stimulus package will help mitigate the strain of unemployment or the increase in domestic violence remains to be seen.
The situation is dynamic, and information changes daily. For those living with escalating abuse, it’s disheartening to have no idea how long the suffering will last. It is still early, and we likely haven’t seen the worst of the pandemic numbers, but it seems cruel to leave people living with abuse in such a hopeless situation. Yet this is what authorities are doing when they prioritize mitigating the risk of coronavirus contraction above all other considerations.
These are the tradeoffs, and unfortunately, decision-makers have allowed the crisis to be an either-or debate: We can either stop the virus, or we can take care of the rest of America. The states have responded by eliminating personal freedoms and making the coronavirus the highest priority. Framing the crisis this way is dangerous because it breeds hopelessness and despair.
To counter this, each state needs a measured, balanced approach to protect citizens — one that includes a compelling case, explained in clear language, for why victims of domestic violence should be put at greater risk for abuse, and women and men everywhere should suddenly become unemployed and struggle to feed their families. Officials can stop pushing faulty doomsday data and give people hope that there’s an end point — such as a drawdown plan, like the one from the American Enterprise Institute, with clearly outlined objectives and milestones.
Lastly, lawmakers have an obligation to acknowledge the suffering caused by these tradeoffs and to reassure, in the strongest possible terms, the unemployed and those living with abuse that they aren’t simply collateral damage in the collective crusade to stop a virus and get politicians re-elected.
If you or someone you know is living with abuse, please contact help:
- Domestic abuse hotline
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center
Information from the Department of Labor about unemployment assistance during the COVID-19 crisis can be found here.