Nerdy Guest Amy Hammock Discusses Domestic Violence During COVID-19

Families/Kids Mental Health

Dear Pandemic is pleased to introduce our Nerdy Guest Amy Hammock, MSW, PhD (Assistant Professor of Social Welfare, Core Faculty in the Program in Public Health, Stony Brook University) to discuss domestic violence during COVID-19.

Q: Has domestic violence increased during the COVID-19 stay-at-home policies?

A: Domestic violence—both intimate partner violence and child abuse—is an ongoing and enduring public health challenge, with or without a pandemic. Pre-COVID-19, approximately 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner over the course of their lifetimes. Child maltreatment is also substantial, with approximately 670,000 children in the US, and 1 billion children worldwide experiencing emotional, physical or sexual abuse each year.

Data from domestic violence hotlines, shelters, and police calls suggest that intimate partner violence has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, without careful population-based studies, it is difficult to assess the magnitude of these increases with precision. While there is a likely a parallel rise in child abuse, these cases largely remain hidden. With schools closed and most children living in quarantine, there are fewer adults (e.g., teachers) to observe and report abuse on their behalf.

The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to magnify known risk factors for family violence – such as mental distress, social isolation, and economic insecurity. For example, since March 2020, over 20 million people in the U.S. have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a robust relationship between economic insecurity and domestic violence. Moreover, policies to reduce spread of the virus (e.g., social distancing and quarantine) most likely put vulnerable populations at even greater risk of violence. As families spend more time isolating together, conflicts arise. Children may not be able to escape their abusers. Access to protective social networks may dwindle. Women may no longer communicate securely and privately. Both public and private agencies dedicated to providing support to victims of violence are hampered by the new restrictions.

However, there is a lot we do not know about domestic violence in the current COVID-19 crisis given the lack of primary data being collected. Specifically, what are the types and severity of intimate partner violence and child abuse at this time? What are relevant resources that might mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on family violence? Answers to these questions are important to help us understand and prevent the potentially unintended consequences of COVID-19 and associated social distancing policies during this difficult time.

Q: How do researchers collect data on domestic violence?

A: From decades of research on this topic, we know that the best way to measure domestic violence is through use of behavior-specific questions, such as, “has your partner ever slapped you?” or “have you ever pinched your child?” These types of questions yield more accurate responses than do generalized questions, such as “have you ever experienced domestic violence?” There are many reasons for this, including social desirability (people may not want to identify as victims or perpetrators of abuse) and lack of knowledge or confusion about what is meant by the terms “domestic violence” or “child abuse.” Behavior-specific questions remove ambiguity, increasing reliability and validity of responses.

Currently, I am collaborating with two other domestic violence researchers, Rachel Kidman of Stony Brook University and Jhumka Gupta of George Mason University, on a project to collect data about family violence during this time. In our current study, Family Relationships in the Era of COVID-19, we use behavior-specific questions drawn from validated scales to assess intimate partner violence perpetration and victimization, as well a child abuse perpetration. We also created several new behavior-specific questions to assess types of violence that may be unique to the current stay-at-home situation. We created these questions based on our ongoing discussions with providers of domestic violence services, as well as descriptions of violence reported in the media. For example, we ask: “did your partner prevent you from accessing the supplies that would help protect you from getting infected with COVID-19, such as health supplies, soap, hand sanitizer, or masks?”

During this pandemic, we also think it imperative to find out what types of support(s) victims of violence may be accessing and/or not able to access. Therefore, we have asked questions about types of support available – do they, for instance, still talk to friends regularly? We also ask if respondents have reached out to anyone for support related to the violence (e.g., agencies, hotlines, friends, family, etc.).

The survey also includes open-ended questions where respondents can share their experiences. These open-ended questions capture aspects of violence that might be novel to this pandemic, such as how and in which context violence is happening, and what types of supports/resources would be helpful to respondents during a period of social distancing.

Safety is our first priority. Thus, the survey is completely anonymous and we’re using crowdsourcing as our method for data collection — trying to get as many people from as many walks of life to answer the survey anonymously. So, we’re posting it on social media (e.g., our personal pages, places like Dear Pandemic) and asking various community-based organizations to send out the invitation to participate as well.

If you would like to respond or share the survey announcement, you can go directly to the survey or visit our Facebook page.

Q: What can you do if you or somebody you know somebody is at risk of being hurt in their own home?

Intimate Partner Violence:

If you are an adult and you are being hurt by your partner, safety is of utmost concern before anything else. So, if your phone and/or computer are being monitored, take extra precautions (like turning on the incognito web browser) or using other devices if possible. Listed below are some hotlines you can call for support or to talk through other options (like finding a safe place for you and your children, filing for an order of protection, etc.).

National Domestic Violence Hotline:
Call 1-800-799-7233; or
Text LoveIs to 1-866-331-7233; or
Go to www.thehotline.org and press the “Chat now” button

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7 in English
Call 1-888-628-9454 for to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7 in Spanish

National Alliance on Mental Illness
Call 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) weekdays 10-6 EST
Text NAMI to 741741 for crisis support 24/7

If possible, I also suggest reaching out to a friend or family member to let them know of your concern for your safety, and ask them to check in on you (by phone or otherwise) every so often. You may also discuss with them a code word that you will use to indicate that the violence is worsening and that you need them to call the police for help.
Finally, I suggest creating a safety plan. Think about how and where you might be able to go if you need to get away, and gather documents, money, and other essentials that that you can take with you if you need to leave quickly.

Here is a link to a worksheet to help with safety planning:

Here is some more good info on safety planning.

If you are a friend or family member of an adult who is experiencing violence from their partner, the first thing to do is to listen to their story non-judgmentally. Let them know that the violence is not their fault (because likely, the perpetrator of the violence has been faulting them for the violence). Second, let the person know about the resources listed above. Since it might not be safe for them to receive this information electronically if their accounts are being monitored, always ask if there is a safe way for them to receive or keep information. Offer yourself as a resource to the person. Let them know that they can reach out to you to talk again or if the situation worsens (the two of you can come up with a code word that will communicate the danger if appropriate). Finally, help them to think through a safety plan: What will they need to take with them if they need to leave the house quickly (important papers, clothes, food, etc.)? Where can they go and how do they plan to get there? Please see the safety planning resources listed above. Having a safe person to confide in can be very comforting and helpful to someone experiencing violence from their partner.

Child Abuse

If you know that a child is being abused by your partner or by another adult, it is important to ensure the child’s safety right away by filing a report with Child Protective Services (CPS). CPS will examine the report and decide whether further investigation is warranted. In conducting an investigation, agency representatives may talk to the child, family or other parties to determine what is making the child unsafe. CPS can also help connect parents or other caregivers to parenting services and support.

Click here for a list of reporting numbers and websites by state.

If you or someone you love needs resources and support dealing with their parenting, a great resource is the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, which provides confidential, professional crisis counseling and referrals 24/7.

Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline
Call or text 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453)
Go to childhelp.org and press the “Chat now” button

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