Increase in domestic violence feared during COVID-19 pandemic

Monitor staff
Published: 3/21/2020 4:25:10 PM

As more communities began implementing social distancing policies to curb the spread of COVID-19, clinical psychologist Scott Hampton started asking new questions of the men in his batterers intervention program.

“I started poking around to find out how some of the abusers were thinking about this pandemic, including how it applied to their relationships,” said Hampton, of Ending the Violence in Dover. “I had one guy tell me, ‘I know what I’ll do. I’ll go home and tell her I was exposed and that way she’ll have to stay in quarantine with me for 14 days.’ ”

The answer – and subsequent conversations – confirmed for Hampton that perpetrators of domestic violence had already started viewing the pandemic as an “ally” of sorts. With her stuck at home, he can more easily exert his control.

“He now has new justification for telling her not to leave the house, because even the medical experts are saying so,” Hampton said.

For many experiencing domestic violence, the government’s orders to isolate at home have meant victims are now trapped with their abusers, allowing for fewer chances to seek help. While advocates at New Hampshire’s 13 crisis centers are working together in hopes of developing innovative ways to reach victims during this time, they recognize the COVID-19 outbreak has already led to a decrease of in-person services and programs. The impact is likely to continue into April, when many educational and fundraising events are typically held throughout the state in recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

“We know that in times of crisis, instability and financial stress, we see an increase in violence by abusers, and we expect that to happen here in New Hampshire,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “We’re brainstorming ways in this era where we can provide new types of remote services or text services, while making sure we maintain confidentiality and privacy. The world may be in isolation but we want victims to know you’re not alone.”

As new options are considered, advocates say they want victims of sexual and domestic violence to know that the state’s 24-hour confidential hotlines are always available. While in-person service availability at crisis centers has changed because of COVID-19, the advocates who answer hotline calls can make referrals, provide information and help connect those in need with support services.

“We are still available, so please continue to call,” said Jen Pierson, executive director of Concord’s Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire. “We will dispatch someone in an emergency; we will go to court to support you during a restraining order hearing; we will help you however we can.”

Pierson said since cases of COVID-19 spiked in New Hampshire this past week, the number of calls for victims seeking information and services have dropped. It’s too early to know what that decrease means and if it’ll continue, but Pierson said she is concerned that victims, now isolated at home, have fewer opportunities to pick up the phone because their partner is always home, too.

One in four women and one in seven men experience severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner in their lifetime. Research shows that natural disasters, pandemics and wars heighten the risk.

In China, which was first affected by COVID-19, the number of domestic violence cases reported to police tripled in February, according to published reports. Officials contributed the increase to the lockdown.

Concord police’s domestic violence officer Laura Spaulding said Thursday that the number of cases in the city has not increased in the past week but that an uptick is something the department will be looking out for in the weeks and months ahead.

A person’s social life, financial position, medical access and daily routine can be quickly upended when a pandemic hits, which places new stressors on any relationship, Hampton said. When there is domestic violence present in the home, those stressors can lead to more frequent and escalating abuse.

“When abusers feel out of control in their own lives, rather than take responsibility, they tend to externalize and project their problems onto other people,” Hampton said.

Job loss contributed to the pandemic is a real concern for both the abuser and the victim, experts say.

While chronic unemployment isn’t a risk factor, sudden unemployment is a concern, especially if the abuser worked somewhere long-term and was unexpectedly let go, Hampton said.

In instances where a victim lost her job before setting aside enough money for a down payment on an apartment, she may reconsider her plan to leave the abusive relationship. Likewise, if a victim who just left an abusive relationship was laid off because of the pandemic, she may consider going back to her abuser if she feels it is her only option.

On average, a victim will attempt to leave her abuser seven times before she stays away for good. Difficulties in relocation, shared custody of children, financial dependence, disrupted social networks and a number of other factors place the victim at higher risk of returning. Leaving the relationship is the most unsafe time for victims.

“Victims should never feel that their only option is to return – you don’t need to go back,” Pierson said. “Call us – we have the funds, we have emergency financial assistance and we’ll find you housing. We will figure it out.”

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence, advocates are available 24/7 to provide free and confidential support through the statewide hotline at 1-866-644-3574. The statewide sexual assault hotline is 1-800-277-5570. You don’t have to be in crisis to reach out.


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