It’s safe to say that many of us today are consumed with COVID—how not to get sick, how to get people vaccinated, how to keep kids safely in school, how to reopen businesses and how to recognize and treat mental health issues exacerbated by the pandemic.
What I have not heard spoken about in any meaningful way is domestic violence. In fact, the very steps that we have taken to prevent the spread of the virus—quarantines, stay-at-home orders, school closures, economic shutdowns and working remotely—have often created new occasions for abuse. Months of unpaid rent, mounting bills, increased consumption of alcohol, sickness and isolation have not only caused instances of abuse to escalate, but these same factors have contributed to the feeling of helplessness that many victims experience. In much of the world, shelters and legal services are limited or nonexistent. If they do exist, they are likely to be overstretched and under-resourced. In some parts of the world, the United Nations is calling this a “shadow pandemic.”
While men and boys suffer, women and girls are more often the victims, and LGBTQ and nonbinary people are at a heightened risk. Women in marginalized groups, such as refugees, are even more likely to feel helpless.
In the past, the number of domestic violence incidents in the United States was determined largely from police reports. More recent reliance on police call logs, domestic violence crime reports, emergency hotline registries, health records reports, court cases, calls to hotlines, occupancy in shelters and opinion surveys provide a more accurate picture. Last year, according to analysis released by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice (NCCCJ), every form of data relied upon showed overwhelming evidence of an increase in domestic violence after stay-at-home orders were issued. But because domestic violence often goes underreported due to fear, the sensitivity of the topic, and the shame that victims carry, the figures are considered underestimates, and the pandemic has made getting accurate data a challenge. Lockdowns have also trapped more survivors with their abusers, making it more difficult to report incidents or have others intervene, further contributing to this shadow pandemic.
Many of the instances of domestic violence occur in the presence of children. Quite often those outside of the family don’t know what is going on, and it is often difficult to know how best to intervene. And unfortunately, the reality is that in many cases, meaningful intervention occurs only after a child has endured direct and continued exposure to violence.
The effects on children who have witnessed domestic violence experience are far-reaching: insomnia, bed-wetting, verbal, motor and cognitive issues, depression, learning difficulties and aggressive, antisocial and self-harming behaviors. As if that were not enough, studies have found evidence of much higher rates of pro-violence attitudes, rigid stereotypical gender beliefs involving male privilege, bullying, animal abuse, assault and property destruction.
An adverse childhood experiences study led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified exposure to domestic violence as one of several adverse childhood experiences contributing to poor quality of life, premature death and risk factors for many of the most common causes of death in the United States. Obviously, children who experience physical and sexual abuse themselves are at the greatest risk for emotional and psychological problems. And while children develop coping strategies and other protective factors that may mitigate the worst impacts, I think we can all agree that it would be better to not have to rely on them.
There were early warning signs of this shadow pandemic, and those who were aware of the issue were asking for help. Initially, coronavirus relief packages offered programs targeting women, but very few of them covered domestic violence. Eventually, as many shifted to remote work, new measures were adopted to support victims of domestic violence. They included online services, the establishment of alert systems for reporting domestic violence at food stores and pharmacies, the provision of hotel accommodation where shelters are full, telemedicine for reproductive health care at home, economic support for domestic workers and low-income earners who have stopped working, extended paid leave for parents of children with disabilities, free childcare and temporary housing for poor women, “e-justice” services and psychological and legal counseling.
The pandemic was also an impetus for the police in some areas to try harder to reach women. Even in a time when there has been pressure to defund the police, some departments ramped up responses to hotline calls and WhatsApp and Facebook messages, platforms they previously had not prioritized.
But as the virus keeps resurging, so do the problems. Training new hires via Zoom has not been easy. Many courts are either closed or operating at reduced hours, and while many are adapting by switching to the use of new online technology to hear cases remotely, submitting necessary paperwork online has proved challenging, especially for those women with low socioeconomic status. Access to technology is often limited, and the opportunity for victims to safely make a phone call or use any other form of digital communication to report violence and seek help is particularly compromised if they share residence with a perpetrator. It’s too soon to know whether protection orders have been easily accessible and adequately adapted to the COVID-19 context including access to e-protection orders and e-emergency orders online and ex parte that could order a perpetrator to vacate the residence or prohibit the perpetrator from entering the residence or contacting the victim.
The Violence against Women Act, a landmark piece of legislation first made law in 1994, has been reauthorized a few times, most recently in 2013, but it expired in 2018, and while funding has been continued, provisions added at the instigation of advocates and survivors at each iteration have not been addressed. They are waiting in the wings to add provisions that would include greater access to emergency housing, addressing the ability of perpetrators to purchase firearms and providing services based on differing cultural norms and resources.
Media outlets have been helpful in raising public awareness about domestic violence in the context of COVID-19 and the importance of support for victims as a part of the national COVID-19 response. But regardless, as long as domestic violence remains the leading cause of physical injury to women—more than car accidents and muggings combined—much more attention is still needed. Domestic abuse should be understood as a cause and consequence of inequality, and abuse remains a choice by the abuser and cannot be excused by external factors, no matter what those circumstances may be.
We should acknowledge that victims continue to feel shame, not unlike many victims of sexual assault, as though somehow they contributed to their situation or encouraged it. As a society, we have an opportunity and responsibility to inject resiliency through academic, emotional and social support. We must all grapple with whether there are ways we might more effectively intervene within our families, schools, and communities to initiate help and healing. The numbers reported are underestimates and the increase we see is very likely the floor, not the ceiling.
So as we come back from our holiday celebrations, a little fatter and ever grateful for everything we enjoy, whether we do go back to stay-at-home orders or continue our recovery, let each of us think not just about how the pandemic has impacted home schooling, billable hours, remote jury trials and depositions. Domestic violence is pernicious and insidious; it cuts across all demographics; it has negative long term consequences for the children who witness it and devastating effects on those who experience it directly. It’s not too late to make addressing this shadow pandemic part of everyone’s New Year’s resolution.
Joette Katz is a partner at Shipman & Goodwin in Hartford, where she focuses her practice on business litigation. She is a former Connecticut Supreme Court justice and commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. She currently co-chairs the Connecticut Law Tribune Editorial Board.