While stay-at-home orders are meant to protect Americans, they can also prove deadly for those facing domestic violence. Under these orders, survivors of domestic violence find themselves confined with their abusers, stripped of support resources, and overlooked by the federal and state governments. This article is the first part of a two-part series about the cataclysmic impact of COVID-19 on survivors of domestic violence. Part 1 provides an overview of the state of domestic violence during the pandemic and analyzes the federal government response. Part 2 examines the impact of COVID-19 on domestic violence survivors in state court.
An Explosion of Domestic Violence During the Pandemic
There has been a global surge in domestic violence since the pandemic began. China, the first country to issue social distancing orders, reported a three-fold increase in domestic violence reports in March. And, European Union member states, who soon thereafter issued their own health measures, reported similarly high rates.
In the United States, experts theorize that domestic abuse has increased in “intensity and frequency.” Three trends are particularly disturbing:
Increased Firearm Purchasing Leads to an Uptick in Domestic Abuse Homicides
At the beginning of the pandemic, Americans purchased firearms at historic rates. This is a concern to domestic violence prevention experts for two reasons. First, guns amplify the control dynamics of an abusive relationship. Second, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, “access to a gun makes it five times more likely that [an] abusive partner will kill his female victim.” And, though national domestic violence homicide statistics for 2020 are not yet available, some cities have already reported a spike in domestic violence homicides since the pandemic began. Hence, experts fear that more abusers now own firearms and consequently, the abuse has become more deadly during the pandemic.
Increased Household Stressors Intensifies Household Volatility
The pandemic exacerbated the common stressors that lead to increased domestic violence. For instance, domestic abuse occurs more frequently whenever households spend more time together, meaning that pandemic lockdown orders have formed conditions ripe for domestic violence to occur. Next, the pandemic created historic job loss and unemployment. Furthermore, the negative financial consequences of the pandemic have disproportionately impacted populations that historically experience higher rates of domestic violence, such as LatinX, LGBTQ, and Black Americans. These factors are concerning because negative financial events and stress increase the frequency and severity of abuse in domestic violence situations. Lastly, financial entanglement—with income, property, or healthcare—often makes severing ties with an abuser economically difficult or infeasible for domestic violence survivors. Therefore, experts fear that the pandemic has entrenched and subjected survivors to more frequent and intense abuse.
Increased Hotline and Emergency Calls Despite Signs of Underreporting
Statistics measuring domestic violence incidents have increased during the pandemic. Indeed, the National Domestic Violence Hotline reported a 9% increase in calls when the shutdowns first took effect. But some jurisdictions reported even higher rates. For instance, New York City reported a 10% increase in domestic violence police reports, and Portland recorded a 22% increase in domestic violence arrests. And, since April, hotlines across the country continue to report month-over-month increases in calls and higher numbers of calls compared to 2019.
This spike in statistics is even more alarming given that experts believe domestic violence is reported less often because of the pandemic. In other words, experts speculate that domestic violence is being underreported, citing a shift in reporting behavior. Now, in the words of one expert, survivors are less likely to file a domestic violence report and do so only if it is an emergency or “[t]here’s no other options available to me situation.” Indeed, this comports with the statistics as well. For instance, in New York City reported a downturn in domestic violence hotline calls in March. But, simultaneously, the New York City police reported a 10% increase in domestic violence police reports. Additionally, hotline workers also reported an increase in calls from survivors seeking emergency shelter. Therefore, it is likely that any dip in domestic violence reporting is not due to a decrease in domestic violence, but to a change in reporting behavior.
At bottom, although the reported statistics are in some cases historically high, they should be even higher.
Overextended Domestic Abuse Prevention Infrastructure
Amidst this surge in domestic violence, the pandemic has changed or cut back the nonprofit resources available to survivors. Many survivors rely on domestic violence prevention nonprofits for counseling, legal advice, and housing assistance. However, domestic prevention nonprofits report that donations have slowed since the pandemic began in March, and less than a handful of states have undertaken significant pandemic-relief funding for these nonprofits. Thus, the pandemic has stretched nonprofit resources thin at a time when survivors need them the most.
Nonprofits Shift to Remote Services
In accordance with stay-at-home guidelines, most nonprofits eliminated in-person drop-in counseling and shifted to remote support groups and counseling services. However, the transition to remote operations strained the resources of many nonprofits, who now needed to furnish their workers with essential work-from-home equipment, such as computers, cellphones, and security software.
For some survivors, remote communication is a good thing. Nonprofits report hearing from survivors who have never reached out for help before, because they were previously unable to access in-person support. However, for other survivors who live with or are monitored by their abusers, remote-only services impose new risks. Therefore, nonprofits have had to drum up innovative new methods of outreach. For example, many nonprofits expanded avenues of communication with victims to include telephone, text, and online platforms. Additionally, nonprofit counselors now coordinate safe words or phrases with survivors to protect lines of communication. While these measures have mitigated some of the challenges of remote work, domestic violence prevention advocates do not believe these measures they sufficiently meet survivors’ needs. Thus, after the pandemic, nonprofits should consider making remote services available in addition to, but not in place of, in-person survivor resources.
Shelters Operate with Reduced Capacity and Increased Costs
The pandemic slashed the availability of alternate and temporary housing to domestic violence survivors. Domestic violence shelters everywhere have cut back capacity to comply with social distancing guidelines. For some shelters, already operating at capacity, they have needed to turn away survivors seeking help. However, other shelters have undertaken significant measures to meet community needs, such as distancing beds and sending overflow to hotel rooms. One YWCA nonprofit, in Nashville, has even leased RVs to temporarily house new shelter intake.
Meanwhile, the pandemic creates new barriers for survivors seeking housing assistance. In addition to the risks survivors typically face when transitioning to a shelter, survivors now must consider their own health and the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in a shelter. Moreover, informal housing resources are less available to domestic violence survivors. Reports find that domestic violence survivors hesitate to seek shelter with friends or family, fearing that they will transmit COVID-19 to their loved ones.
Insufficient Federal Support
Generally speaking, countries have taken two types of precautions to lessen this explosive increase in domestic violence during the pandemic. First, some have strengthened existing domestic violence prevention infrastructure. Second, some have included language to protect survivors in pandemic response plans. Like many other countries, the United States increased funding to its domestic violence prevention infrastructure. However, the United States failed to account for domestic violence in its pandemic response plans in other ways.
Congressional Funding of Domestic Violence Prevention
Congress has passed two stimulus packages that include additional federal funding specifically for domestic violence prevention during the pandemic.
First, in March 2020, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the “CARES Act”), which included three sources of additional funding for domestic abuse survivors:
- $45 million for emergency shelter funding through the Family Violence Prevention Services Act
- $2 million to fund the National Domestic Abuse Hotline
- $4 billion for housing under the Emergency Solutions Grants provision, which will aid survivors among other populations
Additionally, in December 2020, Congress passed its latest pandemic relief bill, which largely extended the funding already allocated in the CARES Act.
On the whole, domestic violence prevention advocates praise these provisions for recognizing survivors’ unique vulnerability during the pandemic. However, most advocates also criticize these provisions for: (1) falling short of the financial needs of domestic violence prevention resources; and (2) failing to account for the needs of immigrant survivors and survivors in the workplace. Indeed, advocates call for more funding and for future relief packages to accommodate immigrant and worker needs, such as guarantees of protection regardless of citizenship status and paid sick leave.
CISA Guidance Fails to Account for Survivors
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (“CISA”) failed to account for survivors and domestic abuse prevention infrastructure when rolling out its pandemic response guidelines. Specifically, the CISA guidelines fail to include shelters and domestic violence prevention services as “essential businesses.” Accordingly, because states rely on this guidance to shape their own policy, many states failed to include shelter and domestic violence prevention services as essential facilities. Indeed, only five states exceeded CISA guidelines and expressly designated domestic violence shelters as essential businesses. Consequently, shelters in those states are able to remain open. But shelters in other states are not able to stay open during stay-at-home orders or, without clear guidance, face legal uncertainty if they do stay open. Moreover, without “essential business” status, shelter workers are not considered essential workers and will not be among the first to receive vaccines. The lack of clarity about the status of shelter and domestic violence prevention services under stay-at-home orders has left many survivors confused about resource availability and unable to access support during the pandemic.
Congress’ Failure to Reauthorize VAWA
Congress let the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”) expire in 2019 and has not reauthorized it. Importantly, programs and grants under VAWA remain funded and operational despite its expiration. But Congress’ failure to reauthorize it means that new proposals in the 2019 House bill that would have reduced domestic violence cases, especially during the pandemic, never took effect.
For example, Congress’ proposal to close the “boyfriend loophole” would have removed firearms from the hands of many abusers. Closure of the “boyfriend loophole” would have extended a current provision of VAWA—that prohibits abusers who have children with, are married to, or live with survivors from owning firearms—to dating partners and stalkers. If passed, the new provision undoubtedly would have curbed some of the domestic violence involving firearms that spiked during the pandemic. Additionally, the 2019 VAWA would have improved domestic violence reporting on a national level. This would have given domestic violence prevention experts more insight into how the pandemic impacted domestic violence, thus better informing the government’s pandemic response.
Fortunately, reauthorization of VAWA appears to be a top priority for President Joe Biden who sponsored the first rendition of VAWA in 1994 in the Senate. Therefore, the domestic violence prevention support networks and survivors expect a new VAWA bill to reach the House floor in 2021.
In short, there are three things the federal government can do to help alleviate the plight of survivors during the pandemic:
- Increase Federal Funding: Congress should increase federal funding of domestic violence prevention services and shelters. In doing so, Congress should account for the influx of need for these services, the drop in charitable donations given to nonprofits, and the increased operating costs for these resources.
- Reauthorize VAWA: Congress should reauthorize a more robust VAWA. Specifically, Congress should pass a VAWA with the provisions that failed in the 2019 bill, which might mitigate some of the issues experienced during the pandemic, such as the “boyfriend loophole” and implementation of a national reporting system.
- Clarify CISA guidelines: CISA should issue new guidelines that designate domestic violence prevention services and shelters as essential business, and specifically exempt survivors seeking safety from stay-at-home guidelines.
The world has seen an explosion in domestic violence during the pandemic. Unfortunately, in the United States, the federal government’s failure to prioritize this issue has left survivors vulnerable and without critical resources. Therefore, it is incumbent on the federal government to fund, protect, and affirm the needs of survivors during the pandemic.
 These states are California, Illinois, and New Hampshire.
 These states are: Colorado, Minnesota, North Carolina, Illinois, and Indiana.