Last August, a woman called a domestic violence hotline in Utah four times. She needed shelter so that she and her children could leave an abusive situation. But more than six months later, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), she is still living with that abuser, waiting to find a safe place to go.
Hers is not the outlier experience. For countless survivors, escaping an abuser takes time—both to work up the conviction and resources to flee and to secure at least some basic housing. But as the coronavirus spreads nationwide, victims are faced with an unprecedented complication. Public health officials and statewide leaders have communicated this in no uncertain terms: Don’t leave home.
Their guidance—urging Americans to stay inside their homes as much as possible—is meant to stem the disease’s spread. And it’s important counsel, keeping exposure to a minimum and therefore ensuring that more people remain uninfected. But for those experiencing domestic violence, recommendations meant to protect them could put them at risk of more abuse.
“The reality is home is not a safe place if you’re with an abusive partner,” says Kelly Starr, public affairs director with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Isolation that provides us safety from the virus is isolation that can make an abusive situation more dangerous.”
Domestic violence is about power and control. One way to exert both is to keep a partner away from the rest of the world. “Isolation is a huge factor in somebody being able to gain and maintain power and control over another person,” Starr says. Abusers often cut off partners from their family and friends while controlling where they can go and when. Many of these same conditions are now being imposed by the coronavirus crisis, which requires people to stay inside and away from others as much as possible. Now abusers have “complete access to what someone is doing 24/7—that’s really dangerous for survivors,” she says.
“An abuser can use any tool to exert control over their victim, including a national health concern such as Covid-19,” says Deborah Vagins, president and CEO of NNEDV. “We’re definitely worried that [abuse] incidents will increase and that situations will become more dangerous.”
Gaining some distance can also help cool an abusive situation. But now there are “[fewer] options for separation and a pause between partners,” Starr says. “That can really escalate a situation that’s abusive into a more dangerous situation.”
With adults and children stuck at home, victims will have fewer opportunities to seek help. Even something as small as making a call to a hotline could become impossible in close, shared quarters. And while some victims will be able to turn to online chats or text message services, finding the private time to even formulate a plan or look into local resources is going to prove difficult.
Advocates all agree that coronavirus won’t cause domestic violence. A pandemic doesn’t force someone to become violent or abusive. But for those in a fraught situation, the crisis could increase the number of incidents or make them even more dangerous. With more people at home either doing remote work or out of a job, abusers will have more time on their hands. That can also increase violence. “It can really escalate the situation,” Starr says.
“I worry about an uptick in abuse for those who are already subjected to it,” Vagins says. “I worry about lethality going up.”
Nationwide, the realities of social distancing are setting in. But for this group, isolation is pronounced, and home isn’t a haven from danger—it’s ground zero for it.
“Domestic violence is already a really isolating experience for people,” notes Beth Hassett, CEO of WEAVE, a domestic violence and sexual assault services provider in Sacramento, California. Now everyone across the country is more disconnected than they usually are. “When you don’t have as much outside contact with other people,” Starr says, “you can feel really alone, and it can be more dangerous for survivors.”
Moreover, strict quarantine robs victims of access to other people who can validate their experiences. Abusers will often tell their partners that the abuse is their fault or that they’re the only ones experiencing it. “That makes you feel more stuck,” Starr says. “When you’re not talking to other people as much it gives it so much more weight and so much more power, and you feel so alone.”