COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders have focused attention on a fact that domestic violence victims and those who work with them have long understood: Dependence on abusers is harmful and sometimes deadly.
As researchers who study domestic violence, we think recent reporting on the intersection of social distancing and domestic violence risk is incredibly important, but reflects only the newest challenge facing victims dependent on abusers.
Long after there is a vaccine and distancing ends, domestic violence victims will need the world to keep paying attention – in terms of services and legislative action – because their dependence on abusers and urgent need for help will not end.
Reporting on COVID-19 helps illustrate what abusers have always done to take advantage of circumstances that increase victims’ dependence to keep them in these abusive relationships. Dependence that makes it hard for victims to leave relationships can take many forms, such as having children or living with the abuser, or being unemployed.
Our research team discovered that after domestic violence was reported to the police, women who were unemployed were more likely to be victimized again in the subsequent six months. Women with children were less likely to have left the abusive relationship a year later.
Chronic illness and physical disabilities can also increase women’s dependence on abusers as well as their risk of being victimized and facing barriers to leaving. Through our research, we have listened to survivors tell us about how abusers threatened to withhold (or actually withheld) medication.
Our observations are in line with what other researchers have discovered about abusers tampering with medication in the form of birth control.
While it may seem obvious that violence can cause or exacerbate physical health issues, what is less often considered is how dependence on abusers can make things even worse.
Dependence on abusers is also linked with more psychological and physical health symptoms relative to other types of trauma. Problems such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder as well as illnesses can also make escape more difficult.
Even without a pandemic, services nationally are insufficient to meet the needs of domestic violence victims. Shelters struggle to obtain funding and often do not have enough beds in cities, and are rare or nonexistent in rural areas.
Temporary transitional housing, long-term stable housing, and related subsidies are even more difficult to access than shelter beds. Legal representation to support safety or navigate relationship dissolution is also difficult to access and often insufficient.
The effects of COVID-19 may be unprecedented in scope, but it is well-established that dependence and domestic violence increase during times of stress and societal upheaval, such as humanitarian crises and shifts in climate.
COVID-19 has drawn our attention to the ways victims dependence on perpetrators increases their risk for ongoing violence and even death. Indeed, an increase in funding for domestic violence shelters and hotlines was included in the $2 trillion stimulus bill passed last week.
Such support during this time will be vital. We can’t let this attention be a blip on the radar. Victims will need ongoing services and support long after we have found public health solutions to COVID-19.
That support must include funding for innovative, holistic services for victims, such as those offered through Family Justice Centers, and legislative action, such as the reauthorization of a robust federal Violence against Women Act.
Anne P. DePrince is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver. Naomi Wright is a graduate research assistant in the Department of Psychology at DU.
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