March 2020 began COVID-19 shelter in place orders across the nation.
Cases surged, and officials felt stay-at-home orders would keep people safer and slow the spread of disease. The nation experienced the first widespread school and work closures of our time. With academic, professional, and personal movement limited, advocates expressed great concern over the specific health and safety impacts home confinement would have on IPV, or intimate partner violence.
IPV and the Pandemic
Yes, sheltering measures are one of the primary ways we have to prevent widespread infection from highly infectious and dangerous viral diseases, but IPV advocates knew that these same measures also present a secondary risk. It often traps victims in the same physical space as their abusers.
Agencies and hotlines prepared for an influx of calls for help and services that have yet to come. In fact, many domestic violence organizations saw contact drop by over 50 percent. Yet, the experts remain certain that IPV numbers hadn’t dropped. Crisis, by its very nature, historically raises IPV numbers due to its associated distress factors.
So, why the downturn of contact in an environment that breeds domestic violence? The answer goes back to the problem itself. The abused becomes traps in the same space as the abuser, which places even more limits on opportunities and access to seek help from outside services.
Today, some areas of the nation remain under social distancing measures, but widespread movement restrictions have been lifted as the pandemic moves forward. Experts are preparing for a second surge, and they are questioning if, when, and how this will ever end. The uncertainty makes it clear that we must better understand the impacts pandemic infection control has on IPV situations.
Two important IPV truths have come to light during this pandemic:
- Crisis magnifies socio detriment inequalities upon health and wellbeing.
- The hardships of sheltering in place are not equal across the socio board.
To truly understand those truths, we must know some hard facts about IPV:
- It isn’t limited to physical abuses. It can be any combination or singularity of sexual, psychological, physical, or emotional in nature.
- One in 10 men experience IPV.
- One in four women experience IPV.
- It crosses all cultures, races, religions, sexual preferences, and socioeconomic classes.
Socio Factors, IPV, and the Pandemic
As mentioned above, IPV can occur in all groups of people. It is occurrence, however, disproportionately impacts marginalized groups, such as those of color. This is due to any number of factors that may be present within the circumstances, including neighborhood violence, unsafe housing, lack of childcare, limited social support opportunities, and economic instability.
It’s impossible to address IPV without addressing the socio factors that contribute to it. Add the social isolation of the pandemic to these socio factors, and IPV can almost become invisible.
IPV is significantly connected with economic status. Independence is a factor in prevention just as economic dependence is a source of fuel. IPV victims often find it impossible to sever the relationship when their financial health is entangled with their abuser and they don’t have an alternative means to support themselves.
In many cases, the pandemic has further entangled the finances of the abused and abuser. This is especially true for workers without a college education, immigrants, and women of color who’ve been hardest hit by the pandemic’s unemployment numbers.
Access to Help, IPV, and the Pandemic
Having an alternative place to go for housing refuge is a huge facet in an IPV victim’s decision-making process to seek help. Yet, social distancing and other pandemic public health and safety measures have resulted in many shelters, hotels, and alternative housing sources to operate at limited capacity or even close their doors. Travel to get to these safe havens has even been restricted in many areas. It is a problem that advocates continue to use innovation to solve, but rural and poor areas remain with limited physical resources behind those innovations.
School and childcare facility closures have also impacted the ‘place to go’ factor. In some cases, it’s introduced added stress into homes. These homes are struggling to balance earning a living with new virtual learning responsibilities, access to internet to work or school online, and finding a place for children to stay during working hours. The cumulative is showing rises in child abuse cases and diminished ‘place to go’ capacity since closures limit the interaction between victims and mandated reporters like teachers and licensed childcare providers.
Self-reporting has also been impacted by COVID-19. Some police reporting procedures have moved online. Other facilities require long waits in-person due to limiting the number of people who can enter the precincts at one time.
Trial courts have faced delays for legal hearings on IPV and restraining orders during these pandemic shutdowns and limited operations. Offenders have been set free due to overcrowding in jails. The lack of consistency and ease of access are further deterring victim reporting and discouraging many from seeking legal help. Of course, the racial tensions that have paralleled the pandemic have only further isolated people of color from utilizing the legal system for IPV.
Medical professionals offer a portal to identify IPV. The fact remains that few IPV victims directly seek help. Routine medical interactions offer an opportunity to identify IPV victims and establish a connection to useful social services, such as counseling and victim advocacy groups. This has long been a safe place for victims to honestly disclose information that identifies abusive behaviors and incidents that victims may otherwise be normalized to. Aside from physical examination and the patient’s own behavior, medical professional can often identify IPV warning signs via the presence of an aggressive partner and gaslighting tactics. Emergency departments, L&D wards, and other medical settings make it protocol to screen for IPV when patients are alone, offering an opportunity that severely oppressed and heavily supervised victims may not get elsewhere. And intervention is immediate for victims and their dependents. Yet, COVID-19 has caused many non-emergency medical services to be rescheduled or moved to telemedicine platforms that make it difficult to safely screen for IPV. If the patient has access to online portals, the abuser can still control the conversation and disclosures by simply being present off camera.
Changing the Dynamics
With a potential for secondary waves of COVID to reinstate or continue social isolation and access to help for IPV victims, it’s imperative to look at ways to level equitable access to services for all.
- Equal accessibility to broadband internet service should be a community priority. This could be a subsidy program akin to the FCC’s Lifeline program or public access points across easily accessible places throughout the community. This offers both greater connectivity opportunities to friends and loved ones and greater access to those official ‘help’ resources discussed above.
- Greater commitment from the medical community to safely standardize screening for IPV during telemedicine appointments. IPV information should be offered to all patients as part of the disclosure process. Once IPV has been established, clinicians and patients should establish code words/signals to report during future telemedicine appointments and safe practices to prevent the abuser from discovering online communications with help resources. This can include activities like how to set up a new email account, a safe word to signal the patient needs law enforcement intervention, saving help contacts under fake listings, deleting browsing histories, and so forth. For example, the number for legal services can be stored as a pharmacy listing in the victim’s contact list.
- Federal, state, and local governing bodies must make a commitment to consider the above-mentioned socio ingredients in their crisis planning and interventions and account for privilege, access, and financial impacts to their IPV residents before implementing policy.
In closing this pandemic has highlighted more than its own direct impact potentials and certainties. It’s put a spotlight on many preexisting public health crises, including IPV. Whether mandates go into effect again, people must adjust to new normals, or COVID-19 fades away, policy makers, law professionals, victim advocates, public health officials, and all other segments of the population must consider and address how social inequities can both hide and fuel IVP and greatly impact the victim’s ability to access and utilize their services for help, refuge, health care, legal services, and so forth.