Lessons Learned: What the Pandemic Has Taught Us (So Far) About Intimate Partner Violence
By Katie Querna & Natalie Dolci | January 5, 2021
Katie Querna is a gender researcher at St. Cloud State University. Natalie Dolci is a Seattle-area gender-based violence specialist.
The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic saw troubling increases in intimate partner violence (IPV) and gun sales. Ten months in, the pandemic has highlighted gaps in survivor safety and the infrastructure needed to prevent violence and promote security. But it has also illuminated opportunities to create better supports for the long-term: gun responsibility, addressing economic inequities, examining the role of technology, increasing access to civil legal remedies, and promoting health care’s responsiveness to IPV. These areas of opportunity are only as promising as our willingness to take action.
The Shadow Pandemic: Increased Violence and Risk Factors
Recent gun sales have been strikingly high. In the first ten months of 2020 alone, a record 17 million guns were sold, up 91% from the same time period in 2019. Along with gun sales, rates of IPV homicides during this same time period have skyrocketed. Access to a gun makes it five times more likely that an abuser will kill his female victim.
The increased number of purchased firearms coincides with a rise in community-level violence, unsafe or precarious housing, decreases in social support, and destabilized childcare. All of this exists in the context of widespread economic desperation. Some trauma centers have reported double the amount of high risk abuse since the pandemic began. And just like the pandemic itself, the impacts of gun violence generally and IPV specifically are disproportionately felt in Black, non-white Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native communities.
Keeping youth safe from IPV has become more difficult; fewer interactions with supportive adults (often mandated reporters) means fewer opportunities to assess well-being or connect youth to vital social supports and services. For example, the closure of many school-based health centers reduces youth’s access to reproductive and behavioral health services, increasing vulnerability to reproductive coercion and sexual violence.
“Teens are staying with abusive partners longer because they need human connection. The main goal I have with teens is opening up their circles and getting more experiences with people who aren’t abusive. That’s extremely hard to do right now.” — Jen Dieringer, LICSW
According to Jen Dieringer, a licensed independent clinical social worker in Seattle, “teens are staying with abusive partners longer because they need human connection. The main goal I have with teens is opening up their circles and getting more experiences with people who aren’t abusive. That’s extremely hard to do right now.”
Economic Disruptions Have Increased Financial Abuse and Insecurity
Financial dependence increases vulnerability to IPV. The pandemic has exacerbated economic entanglements by increasing un- and underemployment, particularly for women of color. Still more women have stepped out of the workforce “voluntarily” or had to decrease hours and wages to care for children and older loved ones, which has enduring consequences for their financial future.
Even under pre-pandemic circumstances, survivors of IPV experience financial exploitation in the forms of theft, fraudulent debt, property damage, and lost wages due to abuse. The CDC estimates that IPV costs a cisgender woman over $104,000 over the course of her lifetime. Further, some research suggests that up to 99% of women reporting any abuse also report financial abuse. Conditions worsened under COVID-19 with stolen stimulus checks, widespread unemployment, and delayed court proceedings that would otherwise allow for relief such as child support.
Unrestricted, direct cash assistance has been shown to be a successful intervention when supporting IPV survivors. FreeFrom’s recent report on disrupting IPV through flexible cash assistance makes robust, evidence-based recommendations on the importance of trusting survivors to be able to spend cash assistance in the best way to support their ongoing safety and autonomy.
Technology Can Be a Lifeline—or a Threat
Access to technology is more important than ever. Use of computers and the internet during the pandemic is often the only way that survivors can access employment, education for their children, or social support. Community-based agencies should be encouraged to use client assistance funds to help survivors acquire safe technology. While it might have once been considered a luxury good, technology has proven a critical lifeline—but also something that abusers can use to stalk and monitor survivors.
Given this, survivors will benefit from tech literacy training. Educating survivors about VPNs, secure email, password management systems, and multi-factor authentication can help protect them from the tech-enabled coercive control that can occur while in the relationship, and post-separation.
“It’s important to develop systems and responses that focus on the offender and abusive behavior, and not on asking the survivor to continue to change their phone number, shut down their social media and stop using tech.” — Riddhi Mukhopadhyay, Sexual Violence Law Center
Riddhi Mukhopadhyay, Director of the Sexual Violence Law Center, notes, “It’s important to develop systems and responses that focus on the offender and abusive behavior, and not on asking the survivor to continue to change their phone number, shut down their social media and stop using tech.”
More Tech Adaptations Are Needed to Support Survivors
IPV prevention and response programs have been using technology in new ways during the pandemic, but struggle with finding vendors that support their unique confidentiality needs. Chat functions are often built around retaining as much data as possible, as opposed to the kind of “leave no trace” approach that survivors experiencing stalking require. And though organizations like the National Network to End Domestic Violence have provided technical assistance around considering use of such communication tools, we are still very much in an era when technology places a premium on data collection, not privacy.
Monte Jewell, a civil legal aid attorney with Jewish Family Service in Seattle, has encountered these challenges firsthand. “Proprietary vendors are often unable to afford to support our programs. Their developers may be struggling to reconcile the promises made by the sales representatives with the realities of the software — as well as their own gaps in knowledge about gender-based violence programs, especially programs funded as part of state or federal contracts that include strict compliance requirements.”
“We should identify, recruit, train, and support coders who care about ending gender-based violence. We should reallocate some portion of our resources from proprietary vendors to joining with feminist and anti-racist coders in our work.” — Monte Jewell, Seattle Jewish Family Service
Jewell envisions fruitful partnerships across disciplines between those with shared values, “We should identify, recruit, train, and support coders who care about ending gender-based violence. We should reallocate some portion of our resources from proprietary vendors to joining with feminist and anti-racist coders in our work.” Cross-training between support professionals and those in the tech sector could help sensitize platforms to the unique needs of survivors.
Courts and Legal Processes Present Barriers Alongside Opportunities
Most people who experience IPV don’t report it. Research cites a variety of reasons, including experiences of racism and gender bias within the criminal justice system, fear of retaliation from the abuser’s network, and previous experiences where police involvement decreased feelings of security. But despite hesitations about involving the criminal justice system, many survivors may be interested in civil justice in the form of protection orders or parenting plans.
Civil remedies present their own challenges during the pandemic. A lack of coherent, consistent filing processes, increased COVID exposure risk, and court backlogs have made this option untenable for many survivors looking to file orders for protection. Civil legal aid is imperative to assist in navigating changing and disparate approaches.
Yet, civil legal remedies have demonstrated some exciting forms of innovation and increases in accessibility during this time. Those familiar with the legal response to IPV have been tracking the proliferation of electronic filing and service (E-Service) of protection orders. Though remote protection order proceedings were developed to support social distancing, the pandemic has forced long awaited modernizations in the court process.
“I am hopeful that courts will adapt and innovate, allowing appearance by phone or by Zoom when a survivor does not feel safe coming to the courthouse,” Mukhopadhyay states. “Having the technology platform adapt to safety issues takes the burden away from survivors.” — Riddhi Mukhopadhyay, Sexual Violence Law Center
Data from the King County, Washington prosecutor’s office shows that E-Service increased participation in hearings compared to the pre-pandemic time period, as parties can attend hearings remotely. “I am hopeful that courts will adapt and innovate, allowing appearance by phone or by Zoom when a survivor does not feel safe coming to the courthouse,” Mukhopadhyay states. “Having the technology platform adapt to safety issues takes the burden away from survivors.”
Leveraging Pandemic Health System Changes
As of January 3rd, there have been over 255 million COVID-19 tests administered in the United States. Testing presents a window of opportunity to provide critical resources and information to those who might otherwise be increasingly isolated.
We echo the recommendations of the COVID-19 Task Force on Domestic Violence that points of care for coronavirus testing offer IPV screening and referrals. Partnering with specific IPV community-based programs is critical so that testing personnel know how to accurately describe services and can pass along appropriate contact information. Screening information and hotline numbers could be embedded into online test result portals, be passed out on handouts, and mailed along with at-home testing kits.
Now more than ever, collaboration between social workers, advocates, and health care providers is vital. The increased use of telehealth services holds promise in this regard, as telehealth tends to reduce “no shows” in health care settings across race/ethnicity, age, sex, gender, and insurance status. Particularly with youth, increased attendance allows health care workers to build and deepen relationships, conduct more dating violence assessments, and provide referrals to appropriate services. Evidence-based universal interventions providing information and resources via a “virtual waiting room” or in the chat function could be implemented in all clinical encounters.
Applying the Pandemic’s Lessons to Support Survivors
In addition to recommendations we have previously made to reduce lethal IPV now, we must do more to:
- Support womens’ financial independence by expanding comprehensive paid family and medical leave and paid sick leave, subsidizing child care, and providing unemployment insurance if a survivor loses a job or leaves a job for an extended period of time.
- Provide unrestricted direct cash-assistance to survivors.
- Replace or provide safe technology to survivors.
- Develop collaborative partnerships between survivors, service providers, and tech developers to innovate survivor-centered tech.
- Continue modernization efforts in legal systems that have expanded access and safety for survivors. Fund civil legal aid to support navigating these systems.
- Increase funding to IPV service organizations.
- Implement both universal interventions sharing resources at all clinical visits and point of care assessments for IPV with a meaningful protocol attached if someone “screens in.”
The good news is that changes we make today to support survivors through the current crisis can lay the groundwork for a safer, more equitable future post-pandemic.