Intimate Partner Violence and Child Abuse During COVID-19

When "shelter in place" at home is not safe.

Posted Apr 13, 2020

Collectively, we are experiencing trauma and facing our mortality. We are in unchartered waters, but what happens when “home” becomes unsafe? What happens if Mom or Dad relapse and become negligent parents? What happens if your spouse becomes abusive?

These "stay at home" orders can gravely impact intimate partner violence and childhood abuse, as not everyone's home is safe. 

The workplace and school were once sanctuaries, where victims of violence can temporarily seek peace and safety. Still, now with everyone at home, the victims of abuse have no place to escape. COVID-19 has resulted in diminished community support and heightened levels of distress, which are factors that can worsen domestic abuse. Seeking safety, relying on the community, and attending support groups are more difficult during this quarantine. 

Before the pandemic, a survivor or victim could flee a violent situation by staying with a family member, going to a shelter, or filing a protective order with the police. For many, these options are no longer available. 

At the same time, shelters are under-resourced, family justice centers are closing down or moving to electronic communications and advocacy, emergency rooms are full, and people don’t want to go out in public and risk getting COVID-19. 

Defining IPV

The phrase “intimate partner violence (IPV)” describes physical, sexual, or psychological harm done to an individual by a current or former spouse or partner. Approximately one in four women and one in nine men in the United States have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime. The impact of intimate partner violence varies significantly across the board as some individuals are resilient and can work through their trauma. In contrast, others develop mental health and substance use disorders. 

Approximately 20% of intimate partner violence victims experience new onsets of mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Victims often keep this abuse hidden from others, internalize their verbal and emotional abuse, place blame on themselves for the violence, and express anger, resentment, and fear towards themselves. These feelings and self-reflection can often lead to self-destructive behaviors such as self-injury and suicidal ideations. Victims of IPV will usually struggle with future relationships because of the fear and trauma associated with their past. 

Victims ordinarily wait to be by themselves before they seek help. They wait for their abuser to go to work. They secretly reach out to friends. They look for openings when they don’t have child-care obligations. Due to the current "stay at home" orders, these options are not available. 

Due to the "stay at home" orders, victims of IPV are unable to have a phone conversation when their abuser is at home with them, as abusers often monitor the phones of their victims. Domestic violence calls are down, but this is not because domestic violence is happening less, but instead, it is harder for victims to report it.

Child abuse

In the United States, more than four children die from child abuse and neglect daily, over 70% of these children are under three years of age, and approximately 3 million cases of child abuse are reported each year in the United States. Child abuse goes beyond physical violence and includes all forms of maltreatment, including neglect, sexual abuse, exploitation, and emotional abuse. Neglect and emotional abuse often go unreported because there are no physical marks or scars left on the child. Instead, caregivers or parents leave deep emotional and mental wounds, creating years of trauma that are often carried into adulthood. 

Examples of emotional abuse and neglect include name-calling, verbal insults, yelling, withholding love, support, or guidance, allowing children to witness the physical or emotional abuse of another individual, abandonment, lack of supervision, and failure to provide adequate education, shelter, medical care, and nutrition

Research shows that increased stress levels among parents due to financial strain, the extra burden of having their children at home, and the inability to deal with their child's aggression or behavioral disorders are significant predictors of physical abuse, verbal abuse, and neglect of children.

Parents are unable to rely on extended family, child care and schools, religious groups, and other community organizations, due to the "stay at home" orders. Many child-protective organizations are experiencing strain with fewer workers available, so they may be unable to conduct home visits in areas with stay-at-home orders. Since children are not going to school, teachers and school counselors are unable to witness the signs of abuse and report to the proper authorities. As a result, child abuse reports are "going down" when, in reality, an increase in child abuse is occurring but is going unreported. 

Trauma bonding

Trauma bonding is tightly related to codependency and occurs when an individual is continuously abused by their partner or parent but mistakes this abuse for “love.” If an individual experiences abuse from a caregiver who also expresses love, then that individual learns to associate love with abuse. The victim often justifies the abuse, blames himself or herself, or minimizes the abuse and eventually is unaware that he/she is being abused. Victims of trauma bonding are less likely to report their abuse because they feel as though they deserved it or their partner still loves them. 

When our house is unsafe, where do we go?

Victims of abuse, whether it is child abuse or intimate partner violence, are at an increased risk for developing substance use disorders, eating disorders, low self-esteem, heightened levels of distress, and poor physical health. When we are mandated to stay at home because of a deadly pandemic, but our house is no longer safe, what can we do? 

Shelters are deemed an "essential business," and therefore are still open. Still, many domestic violence service providers are not seeing as many clients in person because of the virus, and are pivoting their services to hotlines, phone consultations, and virtual sessions.

Develop a safety plan

  • Have a list of local domestic violence shelters in your area and find out if they are accepting walk-ins. This should be the first step in your action safety plan. 
  • Have a trusted friend or family member who you can "shelter in place" with if you are in imminent danger. 
  • Communicate with your friends and family daily for support.
  • Develop a code word with friends or family if you are in danger and need to get out quickly.
  • Find the safest place in your house where you can escape if an argument or violence breaks out.
  • Always keep your cell phone on you, in case you need to call a friend, a shelter, or 911.
  • If you are in an emergency, call 911.

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