Crises and family violence: Sometimes home isn’t safe

Tuesday, April 21, 2020
Sydney Idzikowski, Dr. Michelle Meggs, Dr. May Ying Ly & Dr. Shanti Kulkarni

[Information about crisis and support services for those experiencing family violence at the bottom of the article.]

Encouraging people to stay home, avoid non-essential outings is the main strategy to contain the spread of COVID-19. However, for those facing family violence, home can be anything but safe. 

Advocates across the country are concerned about an increase in domestic violence and child abuse incidents, with schools closed and  families stuck at home. The mandate for people to stay at home leaves them trapped inside with the person perpetuating violence, adding to an already existing health crisis. Family violence is often about manipulation, domination, and control.  The COVID-19 outbreak exacerbates existing stressors, fueling the fires that lead to explosive violence.

Leading family violence advocates stress that abuse doesn’t stop in times of pandemic. In fact, instability and financial stress can escalate violence, especially as perpetrators may take advantage of an already stressful situation to gain more control. We also know that after natural disasters like hurricanes, where people are isolated from society and resources, reports of violence and calls to crisis hotlines tend to spike. As service providers reduce or stop in-person assistance, survivors are further isolated from support systems. 

Even survivors who are physically safe still experience the effects of emotional trauma from family violence. Being socially isolated can take a toll on someone’s mental health. Many mental health providers, including Cardinal Innovations Healthcare,  continue to provide services via telemedicine. 

With social distancing and social isolation becoming a new reality, staff at the National Domestic Violence Hotline expect elevated risks for children and adults already experiencing family violence. Survivors of violence lose their window of relief — when they and/or their partners would typically leave the house for work or other responsibilities and when children would leave for school. During these windows, survivors of family violence are in contact with others and able to access resources safely. Without time away from those perpetrating violence, survivors lose an opportunity to reach out for help. 

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Children also experience the distress accompanied by intimate partner violence including increased risk of alcohol and drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and problems in school. And in the age of COVID-19 teachers and other adults who interact regularly with children aren’t able to monitor their wellbeing and report abuse or neglect, leaving these cases unreported. Child welfare experts across the country predict that child abuse incidents are likely increasing during this time, even with fewer reports, and have put procedures in place to check on children. 

Those in unsafe situations combined with the isolation required to “flatten the curve” may find this to be a deadly combination. Safe Alliance and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department have both reported an increase in family violence-related calls. 

Survivors already faced challenges. The NC Council for Women and Youth Involvement reports that in FY 2018-2019, 11,138 domestic violence victims received emergency shelter services. Of those, 41% of people receiving shelter services were children and 5,752 survivors (more than half) were referred to other shelters due to lack of space. 

“Family violence survivors’ needs extend beyond immediate shelter and may include legal assistance, long term affordable housing, child care, job training, and mental health services. Recovery is often a lengthy process, which does not begin until survivors and their children have some measure of safety and stability in their lives,” says Dr. Shanti Kulkarni, Professor of Social Work at UNC Charlotte and a co-leader of  the national Grand Challenge for Social Work to End Family Violence. 

The response to COVID-19 has caused people to see reduced hours or jobs lost altogether. This leaves households in a state of heightened financial stress and uncertainty, which can lead to more frequent and more severe incidents of violence. Research shows that unemployment, particularly during and immediately after the Great Recession in 2008, was associated with an increase in men’s abusive behavior towards their wives and romantic partners.  
In addition to women and children, another group at risk of family violence are women from diverse ethnic communities, especially immigrant women, who may have language and cultural barriers to access for support.  Research has shown that the prevalence rate of family violence for this group ranges from 17% to more than 70%.  

Survivors seeking legal protection will likely face additional barriers and delays to court proceedings.  Mecklenburg County Domestic Violence Court will remain operational, but with limited hours and fewer resources. Child Abuse, Neglect, and Dependency court has rescheduled all hearings other than non-secure custody reviews. Mecklenburg County courts are still granting protective orders but can be more difficult to obtain given reduced services to limit exposure to COVID-19. Additionally, the court is only allowing those directly involved in the case in the courtroom, which means that court advocates can no longer accompany survivors.  

It is important for first responders and social service providers to be aware of the heightened risk of family violence during this time and make it clear that perpetrators of violence will be held fully accountable. Also, people need to know that they are not alone and that there is help, including language interpreting services for those with limited English proficiency.  Local family violence service providers are linguistically and culturally competent; however, survivors may not know of these services.

Domestic violence, or intimate partner violence, involves behaviors including physical violence, sexual violence or assault, stalking, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. Violence of this nature occurs within heterosexual and same sex partnerships and does not require sexual intimacy. Child abuse involves physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, as well as neglect. The term family violence refers to domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and child abuse.

Under the “stay at home” measure, social and human services are considered essential services and people are permitted to travel to access violence support services. Even though the spread of COVID-19 has forced many social service and community organizations to operate virtually, agencies across the state are rapidly adopting new policies and modifying services so people can still access resources and support. There are also ways to support those in your social circle who are experiencing family violence. 

While Mecklenburg County has temporarily suspended Domestic Violence Services for both children and adults and has moved Child Protective Services to virtual operations, support is still available. Crisis and help lines have bilingual staff and access to interpreter services. 

Below is information about the resources for those experiencing family violence and their support systems:

Crisis hotlines

  • People experiencing interpersonal violence can call the Greater Charlotte Hope Line at 980-771-HOPE (4673) or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. These crisis lines are open 24/7.  If you’re unable to speak safely, log onto or text LOVEIS to 22522.
  • To report child abuse, neglect or human trafficking call the 24-hour HELP line at 980-31-HELPS (43577).
  • The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 24/7, confidential and free: 800.656.HOPE (4673) and through chat.
  • The StrongHearts Native Helpline for domestic/sexual violence is available 9am-12pm EST, confidential, and specifically for Native communities: 1−844-762-8483
  • The Trans LifeLine for peer support for trans folks 11am-5am EST: 1-877-565-8860 This hotline is staffed exclusively by trans operators is the only crisis line with a policy against non-consensual active rescue.
  • The Deaf Hotline is available 24/7 through video phone (1-855-812-1001), email and chat for Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled survivors.
  • National Parent Helpline Monday -Friday 2pm-11am EST provides emotional support and advocacy for parents: (1-855-427-2736)

Michelle Meggs is executive director and May Ying Ly is program manager of the UNC Charlotte Women + Girls Research Alliance. Shanti Kulkarni is associate professor of social work at the UNC Charlotte College of Health & Human Services.