By Leigh Goodmark
Intimate partner violence has been called “a pandemic within the pandemic.”
A study of fourteen American cities found that the number of domestic violence calls to law enforcement rose 9.7% in March and April 2020, compared to the previous year. A hospital-based study spanning the same time period found significant increases in the number of people treated for injuries related to intimate partner violence. And a 2021 review of 18 studies relying on data from police, domestic violence hotlines, and health care providers found that reports of intimate partner violence increased 8% after lockdown orders were imposed.
Although almost half of people subjected to abuse never call the state for assistance, our responses to intimate partner violence are largely embedded within the state and rely heavily on law enforcement. A disproportionate amount of funding under the Violence Against Women Act — by one estimate, 85% — is directed to the criminal legal system. A growing number of activists skeptical of state intervention are arguing that responses beyond the carceral state are essential.
The pandemic showed that community-based supports, like pod mapping, mutual aid, and community accountability, originally developed by activists critical of law enforcement responses to violence, can foster safety and accountability without requiring state intervention. The pandemic could spur advocates seeking to distance themselves from state-based responses to expand their services.
Putting aside the question of exactly what increased — violence, or reporting of violence — there are several reasons why intimate partner violence might have risen during the pandemic. Some are fairly obvious: being forced to quarantine with an abusive partner, isolation from sources of support, and the stress of caring for children were widely cited as causes.
But advocates have called for increasing the focus on the other correlates of intimate partner violence that may be responsible. Economic stress, for example, is linked with the perpetration of intimate partner violence, and the pandemic has caused substantial economic stress, particularly for those who were already struggling. With workplaces shuttered, unemployment jumped in the early part of the pandemic. Low-wage workers experienced the most job loss.
One piece of evidence supporting the economic stress theory: intimate partner violence decreased temporarily in mid-April 2020, after the first stimulus checks were issued. Even as the economy has begun to rebound, significant numbers of adults are still reporting economic hardship — insufficient food, inability to pay for housing, and difficulty covering expenses — which is likely contributing to the continued elevation in reported violence.
Trauma may also be responsible. Trauma and the perpetration of intimate partner violence are correlated. Living under the existential threat of being infected with a life-threatening illness, actually contracting COVID-19, and experiencing the illness and death of loved ones are all sources of trauma that could be contributing to increases in violence.
The pandemic limited the options for addressing intimate partner violence. Calling a hotline or searching for information on the internet became exponentially more difficult when sharing space with abusive partners. Many shelters and service providers were shuttered for close to a year, if not longer. Providing off-site housing in hotels strained organizations’ already tight budgets. People feared contracting the virus if they sought medical attention from hospitals and medical centers, and treatment was not always available in emergency rooms overrun with COVID patients.
The pandemic also forced some people to reconsider calling law enforcement as a first response. With the virus rampant in jails and prisons, calling the police to stop violence became a much more complicated decision. For some, concerns about their partner’s well-being may have caused them to pause before dialing 911; for others, the knowledge that their partners could be exposed to COVID during the booking process and then bring the virus back to their homes — regardless of court orders requiring them to stay away from their victims — was a concern.
But the pandemic also fostered practices that could hold enormous promise for the way that we approach intimate partner violence in the “after times.” For too long, organizations have struggled with the question of what to do for people who wanted to maintain their relationships with their partners — who weren’t interested in leaving. Being forced to help people develop safety plans for sheltering in place could provide a new way of thinking about how to meet the needs of those who stay.
And, like COVID-19, the best way to prevent violence is to immunize against it. Focusing on prevention and attacking the correlates of violence — like unemployment, financial strain, and trauma — rather than relying on ineffective, after-the-fact law enforcement interventions, is the best way to stem the pandemic of violence.
Leigh Goodmark is the Marjorie Cook Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.