Everyone in the world has experienced hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but survivors of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) have been especially impacted. Due to the stay-at-home orders and social distancing, people are stuck at home with their abusers. Those spending more time at home with their abusers face an increased risk of experiencing various forms of abuse. The pandemic has given abusers more methods to use against their partners.
Abusers now have a whole new realm of opportunities to expand their control. They can leverage the widespread fear of illness and death to further isolate and control their partners, citing that it is to protect them. Specific tactics that researchers have seen during COVID-19 include: lying about test results, exploiting the fears of their partners about COVID-19, coughing in their partner’s face, faking symptoms of COVID-19, going against public health policies, withholding soaps/sanitizers/cleansers, purposefully exposing family, cutting off internet or phone service, refusing to allow partners to leave the house, and normalizing extreme control through gaslighting. All of these behaviors are coercive control tactics: behaviors that make a person subordinate through using isolation, exploitation, regulation, and deprivation. The popular phrase for people to “stay home and stay safe” is problematic for people experiencing IPV; nowhere is safe for them during this time. The CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, Katie Ray-Jones tells TIME, “Perpetrators are threatening to throw their victims out on the street so they get sick.”
Another factor that influences the frequency of IPV is financial strain. The pandemic has destroyed the economy and as with any economic crisis, there are trends showing increases in IPV. A study using several police databases discovered that there was a 10.2% rise in calls concerning IPV in the two months following the first shut down. The actual number of IPV victims is much higher than this figure. This crime is underreported, statistics show that 60% of survivors don’t go to the police due to complex factors like a culture of victim-blaming, stigma, shame, fear, and intimidation. Some places saw a decrease of more than 50% in calls because survivors were not able to safely access services.
We are in a safety paradox. This creates conditions where survivors are trapped and have no good choices to keep themselves safe. They are in danger of being harmed at home while potentially safe from the pandemic, and if they venture out into the public they may be safe from their abusers but in danger of contracting a deadly virus. The stay-at-home orders may have helped stop the spread of COVID-19 between households, but it also had the unintended side effect of increased violence within some family units. Within the safety paradox, there is little security for those in violent partnerships, in or out of the home. As rates of IPV increase, supportive services and federal funding for survivors have dwindled and suffered. Survivors are left with few options to ensure their safety. COVID-19 has effectively severed many survivors from their social supports, if they had any, and furthered the isolation of those who already had little resources. Everything that could be helpful for them has become harder to access; shelters’ capacities, services, and transportation options have all been limited. Public health mandates have brought on even more challenges. Shelters are required to follow social distancing guidelines to prevent transmissions of COVID-19. For many, the requirements are near impossible to meet; some shelters have little to no personal protective equipment and supplies to ensure safety for staff or residents.
The executive director of Homeless Services United commented on the issue with PPE stating that “It’s difficult enough to retain staff at sites that are currently up and running because of the scarcity of that equipment.” THN has worked to meet some of these needs by organizing a drive that donated over 10,000 masks and other PPE to shelters in Texas. Many organizations have had to close entirely. Several programs have been arranging emergency hotel stays for survivors, but, the rooms are being saved for hospital overflow in many cities. With the restricting of IPV services and the rise in demand, a multitude of survivors are left with dangerous options: either stay with their abuser or be on their own during a worldwide crisis.
There are no perfect or easy solutions to this issue, but steps can be taken to minimize risk and harm in survivors’ housing situations. The first thing organizations working with people experiencing intimate partner violence can do is reduce eligibility requirements and barriers to getting housing/shelter services. Implementation of low barrier policies can reduce documentation requirements that prevent many people from getting assistance and support. The rigid stipulations of the past are not helpful; the adoption of a housing first model can get more people into housing quicker and with greater efficiency, potentially leading to longer-term stays for survivors and their families. Ideally, an increase in supportive services would be paired with this change.
Due to the pandemic and the conditions surrounding IPV, survivors are facing significant economic challenges. Even without a pandemic, it is exceedingly common for those experiencing IPV to experience financial abuse; many are prohibited from working or cannot work, have had credit scores destroyed by their abuser, and/or have been isolated from family that could potentially provide financial support. An increase in flexible, accessible financial assistance through small, individualized grants can help survivors stay safe/find safety, and stay housed. All IPV shelters and service providers would greatly benefit from an increase in donations to support these services.
Long-term stability and safety can start with providing a range of safe housing options in different settings. Large numbers of survivors are needing immediate housing solutions. Hotel stays have worked well for some people, but it comes with a lot of uncertainty, and it is a more short-term solution. Social service professionals can help survivors of IPV get into housing by collaborating with homeless response systems in the area when IPV resources fall short. Organizations can also offer pro bono legal support to help survivors remain in their current housing situation, if they so choose, and legally remove their abusers. There is no one housing solution that works for everybody. Having clusters of safer housing options that meet the survivor where they are at, considering each survivor’s specific situations, and utilizing social supports is progressive, culturally competent, and trauma-informed.
One of the first steps for trauma-informed services is listening to the survivors and giving them the power of self-determination and personal choice back. Experiencing IPV can take away a person’s autonomy and be incredibly disempowering. It is imperative for survivors to have a voice and a choice in what they want for their lives. Service providers can support survivors through collaborating and letting them lead the formation of safety plans that address all the complexities of their situation. Advocates can help survivors connect with options for services in the area and make plans in the case of a COVID-19 diagnosis or any threats to their safety. Prevention Educators can also make a big difference in the community by driving large-scale change through education that will help survivors find safer and more trauma-informed communities. Being aware of the increase in IPV due to COVID-19, taking steps to increase access to services, and remaining trauma-informed will improve the outcomes for survivors.
For more information, please visit our state partner and topic experts over at the Texas Council on Family Violence.