Domestic Violence and Covid-19

In a story that first was reported in the New York Times in April, social distancing and stay-at-home orders have apparently fueled incidents of domestic violence in the state of New York, even if not in New York City. This despite the fact that the police are reporting a general drop in crime during the pandemic.

Statistics suggest domestic violence is down in New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., since the shutdown, even as it has risen statewide and around the world. However, fewer victims of domestic abuse have been calling the police or the New York City’s hotline in recent weeks.

But the drop in reports is far from reassuring, New York officials said, and law enforcement officials and social workers say there are some signs strife is quietly escalating behind closed doors. Calls to some organizations that provide shelter to battered women, for instance, have increased dramatically.

The strict measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus in the city also have, perhaps, raised hurdles — and increased risks — for people seeking help. With schools and nonessential businesses shut, victims have lost opportunities to find privacy away from their abusers and seek help, such as going to work or walking children to school.

Except for shelters, the physical spaces where victims could go to receive assistance — family justice centers, courts and nonprofit offices, for example — have gradually shifted operations online or over the phone.

The NYPD told the New York Times that reports of domestic violence have “progressively declined” since the onset of the pandemic. The crimes, which include beatings, break-ins and killings primarily among couples and families, fell nearly 15 percent in March, 2020 compared to March 2019.

The reported downturn in domestic violence in the city contrasts with a spike reported statewide. For example, New York State Police troopers responded to 1,753 domestic violence calls last month, a 15 percent increase from March 2019, when there were 1,522 calls.

Sarah St. Vincent, the director of the Clinic to End Tech Abuse at Cornell University, said online counseling of people in abusive relationships has an unintended consequence: When victims are forced to have conversations with support workers online or on the telephone, it makes it easier for their abusers to monitor them at all times.

“We see survivors more dependent on technologies that they’re not fully in control of,” she said.

They have had to get creative, using strategems like code words to communicate with victims about their safety. Kelli Owens, the executive director of the State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, said that caseworkers on Long Island pretended to be a pharmacy calling to check a prescription when men answered victims’ phones.

In a related story in the Kansas City Star in April, 2020, it was reported that Kansas City has seen a dramatic increase in domestic violence reports since stay-at-home orders were put in place across the metropolitan area.

According to the Kansas City police, from March 24, when the orders went into effect, until April 21, 911 calls for domestic violence climbed 22% compared to the same time last year.

This year, the number of domestic violence cases increased from 358 in January to 409 at the end of March. That represented a 14 percent increase from the beginning of 2020.

More domestic violence had been feared as a consequence of people being trapped at home with their abusers.

As reported in New York, since the stay at home order went into effect, Kansas City police have seen a drop in the number of other violent crimes. For instance, both rapes and robberies fell sharply.

Carol Jacobsen, a professor at the University of Michigan and the director of the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, recently reported that more whenever there’s any kind of economic problem, violence against women goes up. She refers to it as another worldwide epidemic altogether.

“In these times especially though,” Jacobsen said in an interview, “women are left alone to defend themselves and their children because domestic violence calls are dangerous and often avoided by police.”

She said that she advocates for requiring legislators, judges, prosecutors, attorneys and law enforcement officials to undergo regular training in domestic violence and women abuse since many professionals in the criminal system do not understand domestic violence “at all.”

For more information:
Why a Drop in Domestic Violence Reports Might Not Be a Good Sign
Domestic violence calls jump 22 percent in Kansas City under stay-at-home orders
Carol Jacobsen: Prisons, domestic violence and COVID-19

Written by James Windell, MA 

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