Family Violence in the Shadow of COVID-19

Reports are showing that during this time of public health concern, domestic abuse is on the rise. The pandemic is causing stress and economic pressures, which weighs heavy on a household and relationships.

In a 5-part series, Sheryl Johnson, Director of NAM’s Family Violence Center, shares information to help the community, and victims, better understand family violence in the shadow of COVID-19.

Part 1: Forced Quarantine Campaigns Reinforce Abusers Efforts to Isolate Partner from Family and Friends

Stay at home measures may help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but it also traps people with their abusers. Stay at home campaigns enforce the efforts of an abuser to isolate their partner from family and friends. The more someone is isolated from society, the more control the abuser gains over their partner.

What is the drawback of enforced isolation when it comes to domestic violence?

"Enforced isolation such as self-quarantine and social distancing, simply enhances a batterers ability to further isolate their partner from those that love and care about them," explained Johnson. "In these recent times, even the President of the United States was encouraging people to stay home and away from others; what a perfect sound byte for the batterer trying to further control their family by using the excuse, 'Even the President says we need to do this.' Common sense tells us that abuse happens most often out of the sight of others… what a perfect environment for the abuse to grow and escalate."

Technology is being relied on during this time, especially for anyone working from home. Could a victim use that to reach out for help?

"In these abusive homes, the batterer may also limit the partner’s ability to communicate via social media, virtual formats such as Zoom or technological means. This level of isolation, during these stressful times, can only be more harmful for victims/survivors," said Johnson.  "I heard one story of a batterer who insisted sitting at the “edge” of his partner’s office meetings via a virtual platform.  Earlier he had been accusing her that her work relationships were not merely professional.  He began monitoring/watching her meetings for any behaviors he found inappropriate."

Are you saying it would be safer for the victim if they didn’t work from home then?

"Not necessarily," Johnson stated. "There have also been reports of employees who are not working from home but being allowed by their partners to devote the appropriate amount of time and concentration to their assigned tasks. For the abuser, it’s all about control."

Part 2: How At-Risk Children Are Missing Out on Their Support Network

The pandemic and quarantine measures don’t just cause stress on a couple’s relationship, it can also be detrimental to a child to live in an unhealthy home. The child isn’t just missing out on the educational atmosphere, they are losing out on their support network for things like encouragement and identifying abuse and neglect. Many children find school as their only break from the harmful behaviors at home.

For a child living in a home with domestic violence, what changes for them now that they’re having to stay home?

“Almost every teacher I know, from elementary to high school can tell you a story about a student who had a concern about something at home,” said Johnson. “Students will share those stories with their teacher or other safe school personnel. Teachers and counselors find resources, identify ways to help the family and offer support to the student.  Who does that now?”

“Young people also develop incredibly strong relationships with their classmates, some they may visit outside of school and some they simply see on campus,” Johnson continued. “This quarantine, being stuck in a home with these unhealthy behaviors, makes it even more unlikely that they will be in contact with their personal support networks.”

What other ways can quarantine affect a child living in an unhealthy home?

“Reports indicate that some of our area schools have as many as 60% of their students receiving free or reduced lunches,” said Johnson. “Our schools have been doing an amazing job of providing drive-up food distribution programs, but there has been at least one story of a batterer who did not want the embarrassment of their family publicly receiving a hand-out.  So, where does the food come from in that situation?”

Having to stay at home, an at-risk child will see the abuse even more. Do you think that harms a child’s self-esteem?

“Yes, it very well can,” said Johnson. “I am sure that everyone has seen one of those videos on social media, the teacher who welcomes each student into a classroom with a handshake, or has a check-in board where a student can say how they are feeling today, or organizes a compliment contest for students to say positive things about their classmates,” she explained. “All of these activities bolster the self-esteem and self-confidence of our students. By the time they return to school… they may have missed 6 months of this kind of positivity.”

Part 3: Being Home Creates More Stress Resulting in Increased Violence

There is not a home in our community that is not impacted by the pandemic. People have lost their jobs, have reduced work hours, or are working from home. Parents and students are trying to manage a variation of homeschooling. There are limited opportunities to leave home which results in binge-watching TV, overeating, and disrupted sleep patterns. Together these components cause even more stress and family in-balance, in an already unhealthy family system, often resulting in increased violence.

The third part, of NAM’s 5-part series of a look into family violence in the shadow of COVID-19, Sheryl Johnson, Director of the Family Violence Center, will discuss quarantine and escalating abuse in a household.

Why would a family staying home together almost 24/7, who are striving for the same goal of working, homeschooling, and staying healthy create more violence in the household?

“The stress in a family system is real and from many different directions,” explained Johnson. “In a healthy family, these types of hills and valleys can be easier to navigate, but in an unhealthy environment where abuse is already present, these changes are the equivalent of ‘fuel for a fire.”

How does stress cause someone to become violent?

“While stress does not cause a person to become violent; a person who tends to already be violent, becomes more so when they are stressed,” Johnson clarified. “If they had been yelling or name calling prior to the pandemic, it is possible that with the stresses of the pandemic, they are now pushing or shoving. If previously they were pushing or shoving, perhaps now they are punching or strangulating.”

The longer a batterer is quarantined with their family or significant other the more the abuse will escalate?

“Yes. Another element that makes this frightening is that when the physical violence escalates, the batterer often tightens all controls concerning the family. This might restrict her ability to get medical care after being beaten.”

Part 4: Children are More Aware of Abuse & at a Greater Risk of Being Abused During Quarantine

Due to the coronavirus, people are keeping their distance and staying home. For a child, that means they are “trapped” in their unhealthy family system where they see and hear more than they may ever had in their abusive home. It also puts them at a greater risk for abuse themselves.

The fourth installment of NAM’s 5-part series about family violence during the pandemic, Sheryl Johnson, Director of the Family Violence Center at NAM, examines how children living in an abusive home are suffering from increased exposure to abuse and the threat of them being mistreated.

Are children living in an unhealthy home usually aware of the abuse their parent is going through?

“In almost every case we see in our office, the victims tell us that their children are not aware of what has been taking place. They tell us it takes place behind closed doors, happens when the child is not home, or they simply are unaware,” said Johnson. “However, if you were to ask the children in these homes, they are almost always aware that something is going on, but they often don’t know what it is or how to explain it. During times such as these, with everyone home all the time, that changes this dynamic in major ways.”

How does it change for the child?

“First and foremost, if in the past the violence took place behind closed doors or when children are away, that was a premediated act” explained Johnson. “A parent made a conscious decision to figure out when was a good time or not. With the household being disrupted, and everyone home, chances are that the batterer will be less concerned about when these things occur. This leaves the children open to hearing more confrontations or witnessing more violence than they did previously.”

Is that the only change that occurs?

“Another dynamic that can possibly change is the children becoming victims of the physical abuse as well,” stated Johnson. “Even if the child has never been hurt in the past it can occur now. With the near constant contact that may families are experiencing; a child can now be in the direct path of the violence.”

Would that be another pattern of how the violence in the house is escalating?

“Yes, and under the current quarantine, many children are not seeing their doctors for regular check-ups or minor needs,” Johnson sad. “Children are not spending time with their babysitters, daycare workers, or teachers. All of these individuals see and care for our children regularly and can identify when something is wrong or different; and they are required to report it for CPS intervention.”

Children staying home from school and not seeing friends or family members has removed several of their safety nets, is that correct?

“All of these individuals are vital to the emotional welfare and health of our children,” said Johnson. “Society helps play a role in protecting children, but only when there is some level of access.”

Part 5: Reaching Out for Help from Domestic Abuse During COVID-19

The last couple of months most of the country has been taking precautions during this public health concern by staying home and social distancing. Unfortunately for many, home may not be a safe space.  In 2018, 174 women were killed by a male intimate partner across 64 Texas counties. According to the Texas Council on Family Violence, that is the highest number of women killed in the past decade. Of those, 67 percent were killed at home.

Families or individuals who are suffering from domestic abuse need to know that they are not forgotten during this pandemic. Just because we are having to isolate ourselves for our health does not mean that victims of domestic violence need to stay locked in an unhealthy home life.  They need to know that they are not alone and that they can reach out for help.

In the fifth and final installment of NAM’s series on family violence in the shadow of COVID-19, Director of NAM’s Family Violence Center, Sheryl Johnson, shares information on how those suffering from abuse can reach out for help.

What should someone living in an abusive situation know?

“Anyone that is being hurt needs to know that what is happening is not their fault and it is illegal,” said Johnson.  “They need to trust their instincts and know they have a right to protect themselves and their children.”

What resources are available right now for someone to get help or get away from their abuser?

“All of the local resources are still open and available to help,” Johnson stated. “NAM’s Family Violence Center hotline is available 24/7 at (281) 885-4673 or toll-free at (888) 750-4673. The National Domestic Violence hotline is open at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), as well as law enforcement (9-1-1) and the courts. Reach out to an agency such as the Family Violence Center and talk to someone about what is going on and how you can develop a plan to be safe.”

What if the woman is afraid to call or in a situation where she can’t talk on the phone?

“Did you know that you can text 9-1-1 in an emergency? If you feel your safety is at a greater risk by making a phone call, you can text 9-1-1. Briefly let them know your circumstance and location,” claimed Johnson.

Are there ways that friends or family members can help?

“A person in an abusive relationship can confide in a family member or friend. Together they can decide on a code word that indicates you are in trouble, so they know to send help now,” suggested Johnson.  “And if you suspect that someone is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1 right away. If you’re the person who knows someone that is experiencing this type of violence in their family and you just need ideas of ways to help, call NAM’s Family Violence Center hotline for support.”

If you, or someone you know, is suffering from domestic violence, call NAM’s Family Violence Center 24-hour hotline for help. Call (281) 885-4673 or toll-free at (888) 750-4673. 

The Family Violence Center is dedicated to breaking the cycle of violence by assisting victims of domestic and sexual violence through crisis intervention, long-term support services, and through community violence and awareness prevention education.

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