When lockdown and shelter-in-place protocols aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 went into effect earlier this spring, they put many Americans into circumstances they previously could only have imagined. While for many families the situation has meant isolation and monotony, for those who live with their abusers it has been a nightmare. Under coronavirus social-distancing protocols, the worst-case scenario for people who live with an abuser has more or less materialized. Social workers, lawyers, and advocates have had to rapidly adjust their services in order to get help to domestic- and child-abuse victims who are trapped inside with their abusers.
It’s hard to imagine a set of circumstances that would facilitate abuse so much as the ones we’ve been living under. For one thing, people are stressed. They’re getting sick, losing loved ones, or worrying about getting sick or losing loved ones. The income loss many have experienced only adds to the daily anxiety. Plus, school cancellations mean that many parents have lost their regular affordable child care. Financial strain has been linked to increases in the frequency and severity of domestic abuse, and a 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate leads to a 25 percent increase in child neglect and a 12 percent increase in physical abuse, one study found. Other research has suggested that the stress from catastrophic events like natural disasters can also increase the risk of domestic and family violence. All of this adds up to a potentially dangerous situation for those who live with their abusers—even before you consider the current lockdown protocols.
In normal times, someone living with an abuser and feeling unsafe might be able to place a phone call to a help hotline, to police, or to a friend or family member who might be able to help, when the abuser is at work or out of the house. Under the stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders in many regions, however, the abuser may never leave the house long enough for that call to take place. (Indeed, some shelters and advocacy groups noticed a drop in call volume to domestic-violence shelters and hotlines in the first few weeks social-distancing guidelines were in place.)
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Sometimes victims reach out for help via text or email, but as Lindsey Song, a staff attorney at the New York nonprofit Sanctuary for Families, explained to us, abusers often find ways to surveil their partners’ phones and computers, and now have more time and access during the day to do so. Other victims simply walk into a courthouse to get information on resources from legal-aid or advocacy groups that have set up outposts there. But Sanctuary for Families temporarily suspended its operations at local courts in mid-March. Other groups did the same.
The pandemic’s financial disruptions also make it harder for someone to escape an abusive household, even if they’ve been planning to do so for some time. “One of the reasons that victims sometimes can’t leave, or are afraid to leave, is because of the economic tie they may have to the abuser,” Judy Harris Kluger, a former judge and the executive director of Sanctuary for Families, told us. A victim may have just lost her job, “and [the abuser] is the person who’s putting food on the table.” The victim, Kluger said, is probably thinking something along the lines of “How can I leave with my children now?”
Experts also worry that the coronavirus lockdowns are leading to a rise in child abuse. It’s hard to tell for sure—reported cases of child abuse are actually down in several states and cities. In Milwaukee, for example, reports from child-protective services are down by more than 50 percent since this time last year. This, unfortunately, makes perfect sense, and doesn’t necessarily mean that abuse itself has decreased. “All the normal contacts that children would have … a therapist, or a teacher, or a doctor—everything is being canceled,” says Emily Putnam-Hornstein, a professor of social work at the University of Southern California. “It leaves me quite nervous.”
Already, there are worrying signs of an uptick in violence against children. In late March, a hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, reported six apparent physical-abuse cases in a week; it typically sees about eight a month. The National Sexual Assault Hotline saw an increase in calls from children during March compared with the previous month.
Teachers are among the most frequent reporters of child abuse, but with children out of school, no one outside the family may be able to detect bruises or notice that a student seems too hungry. Social workers following families suspected of abuse rely on checking school records, talking to therapists, and other types of due diligence that are more difficult when all those institutions are closed. Some social workers are switching to virtual visits with troubled families, but “there’s only so much you can really see in the environment if you are interfacing with someone virtually,” says Josh Mersky, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin and a co-director of the Institute for Child and Family Well-Being.
photo Credit: Natalia Ramos