By Peter J. Farruggia, MPH and Lindsay M. Lougen
Around the world, individuals have been, and remain, forced to come to terms with COVID-19 and what has become the newfound reality of shielding oneself, and others, from its potentially lethal clutches. In the United States and abroad, countries have adopted measures meant to slow spread of coronavirus, to include isolation mandates, quarantine, travel restrictions, social distancing, and mitigation efforts. Schools have closed, employees have been forced to work remotely if they have not lost employment entirely, and some businesses remain open for only “essential” business.
In this reality, families and domestic partners quite literally cannot escape one another. Being in close quarters for such extreme amounts of time has proven socially, financially and psychologically stressful to most, and the results of this stress have seeped into domestic and interpersonal relationships, often in the form of domestic violence (“DV”). The pandemic has thus created a global, public health crisis of its own: “[i]ncreasingly frequent, severe, and dangerous” family violence in the home.
Domestic violence is not a new problem. As of 2010, on average, nearly 20 people per minute were physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, equating to more than ten million women and men annually. As of the same year, there were more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.
Flash forward to today. In China’s Hubei province, DV tripled during February 2020 compared to 2019; DV reports in France increased 30% since initiating the March lockdown; DV calls in Argentina have increased 25% since March 2020; and there has been a 30% increase in helpline calls in Cyprus as well as a 33% increase in Singapore. In the United States, data is difficult to gather to accurately assess how DV has changed since the 2020 lockdown began, but various state police departments, from New York City to Portland, Oregon, have reported between a 10% and a 27% increase in calls pertaining to family violence and DV since implementation of stay-at-home orders related to the pandemic.
Stay-at-home orders in many states have made it increasingly difficult for survivors of DV to know if they can get help in fleeing abusive homes and knowing who would receive them were they to leave. Fear for financial stability and stress related to employment and childcare have increased confusion surrounding
these options. Lack of childcare and the inability to have children in schools has made it impossible for those who would have normally observed the well-being of children, such as school counselors, nurses, teachers, social workers and aides, do so, allowing abuse to go on unnoticed and unchecked. On top of this, many remain afraid of contracting the virus by going to clinics, advocacy centers, courts or hospitals, and refrain from doing at all costs, making it more difficult for them to escape DV.
It’s no wonder that of the stay-at-home orders issued between March 12 and May 12, 2020, only 17 states explicitly listed DV survivors or others seeking safety as people or activities exempt from stay-at-home orders. Federal guidance on essential infrastructure, which many states rely on for direction, did not clearly indicate essential businesses would include DV supports like shelters and other DV programs. In failing to make these clarifications, the federal government and various states have not been clear on protections available to survivors, nor acknowledged the needs of survivors during the pandemic.
As a result of the above factors, hospitals are increasingly seeing survivors of DV only after severe damage has been done – injury to deep internal organs or trauma to the skull – and in late stages of the abuse cycle, as opposed to earlier stages, when help was sought pre-pandemic. While telehealth and other virtual medical visits remain available to some, healthcare providers admit tele-visits are not available to all, and they reduce ability to recognize visual indicators and nonverbal cues of physical trauma. Such virtual visits can also make it impossible for providers to ask questions regarding DV and patient safety, as patients may not have adequate privacy.
This public health crisis must be addressed. It is as insidious, if not as lethal, as the pandemic, and ignoring it may serve to perpetuate domestic violence. Various states are beginning to recognize this and take action. New York, for example, in response to significant increase in call volume to its state-run DV hotline, has expanded service from phone calls to text communication, in addition to a secure chat online on a state-run website. This was one of ten recommendations included in the New York COVID-19 Domestic Violence Task Force’s Report to Governor Cuomo, which set forth a new approach in providing services to DV survivors. The other recommendations, all accepted in full as of June 2020 by Governor Cuomo, include flexible funding to meet needs of survivors; housing navigation services for survivors; easier access to Victims of Crime Act funding; and coordination of programs to promote the need for representation of immigrant victims, among others.
For residents of Buffalo, New York, help exists at a local level. The Family Justice Center offers a call line and can set up in-person appointments as needed, as well as a chat through its website during business hours. Catholic Charities Buffalo offers assistance and advocacy services to domestic abuse survivors, and may be reached by telephone or email, with agents fluent in both Spanish and English. The International Institute of Buffalo offers free and confidential services for survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. Child and Family Services offers a 24-Hour Domestic Violence Hotline Response number for both shelter and
help, while offering ways in which to get help online without an abuser tracking web history. Child and Family Services also offers Haven House, an emergency shelter for survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence and their children. The Buffalo City Mission offers services to women and children, including a Women and Children’s Shelter (Cornerstone Manor); rescue services; restoration services; children’s services; and assistance in housing transitioning. Hispanos Unidos de Buffalo provides health care, housing and social services to include supportive housing and emergency food provision.
All of the above resources remain available to DV survivors even in the midst of the pandemic. While the help may look a bit different, it is there, and can be reached. It is important that we make this information available to communities in New York, so that no one feels as though they are without help or escape as we maneuver these stressful and unprecedented times. As we make strides to eradicate COVID-19, let us also continue making strides to eliminate domestic violence and lessen possibilities for it to occur or thrive as a result of the pandemic.
Peter Farruggia, MPH, Student Attorney
COVID Response Legal Clinic
JD/MBA, Class of 2021
Lindsay M. Lougen, Student Attorney
COVID Response Legal Clinic
JD, Class of 2021