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The Need for Enhanced Structural Supports During and After the Coronavirus Pandemic

Introduction and summary

As the United States continues to grapple with the devastating fallout of the coronavirus pandemic—from deaths, job loss, evictions, and so much more—there has also been a surge of domestic violence (DV).1 Stay-at-home orders essential to slowing the spread of the virus, coupled with the economic and health stressors caused by the pandemic, have forced DV survivors already at risk of domestic abuse into even more vulnerable and dangerous positions. While the piecemeal nature of data reporting by states and localities makes it difficult to paint an accurate picture of the prevalence and severity of DV overall—especially during this pandemic—available fragmented data from counties across the country indicate that almost every state has reported increases in DV.2 In addition, other countries’ experiences—where rates of DV have also skyrocketed, by nearly 300 percent in some nations—may be illuminating, according to similarly fragmented data from February and March.3 Even more concerning is that the initial increases in reports of DV in the United States were often followed by a significant dip in reporting, indicating that many survivors facing the threat of continued or escalating violence were unable to find space or time away from an abuser to reach out for help, or else saw no hope or available solutions.4 Reported spikes in gun purchases are also disturbing given the fact that the presence of a gun in a household with a history of DV makes it five times more likely that a woman will be killed.5 Months into the pandemic, media attention on the shadow crisis of DV has waned—but the needs of survivors have not.

As noted above, the data about incidents of DV not only are limited, but they also have not been uniformly disaggregated—by sex, gender, race, or any other factor—if at all. However, based on data from natural disasters, the Great Recession, and other major events that share similarities with the current pandemic, it is almost certain that women, particularly Native women, undocumented immigrant women, and other women of color, as well as LGBTQ people and disabled people, are continuing to experience higher rates of DV compared with the general population.6

The current crisis of DV shines a spotlight on the overriding inadequacies of the very systems intended to support survivors and to prevent or mitigate DV itself. An improved system of survivor supports would:

  • Ensure DV programs and shelters receive sufficient funding and are deemed essential businesses during the pandemic and any future crises.
  • Improve access to comprehensive paid family and medical leave and paid sick leave; child care; and unemployment insurance if a survivor needs to leave a job for an extended period or loses a job.
  • Prioritize improvements to existing laws, including the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and legislative fixes to the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA)

When effectively implemented and strongly backed, a robust support infrastructure helps to ensure a survivor’s safety, health, and economic security. As the country contends with the negative economic and health effects of the pandemic, simply pushing to reopen states is not the catchall solution—for survivors or the public in general. Not only is the coronavirus pandemic still a very real threat that could require future lockdowns to control the spread of the virus, but reopening the economy in an effort to return to business as usual will do little to address the DV crisis. In fact, business as usual has long been inadequate for survivors, even before this pandemic. It is critical that bold structural solutions to address the DV crisis and prevent future violence be developed, both as an immediate concern and as a means to improve support structures for survivors into the future.7

Strengthening the survivor support infrastructure

Much of the progress made to address the needs of DV survivors over the past 25 years has focused on building a network of national, state, and local programs and services intended to prevent, mitigate, and respond to incidents of DV. This informal infrastructure—made up of elements such as crisis hotlines, shelters, DV programs, and state, local, and tribal law enforcement—has been bolstered by a series of groundbreaking laws such as VAWA, which first passed in 1994 and was reauthorized in 2000, 2005, and 2013.8 VAWA was, in part, a response to the inadequate protections available to survivors and lapses in law enforcement that too often failed to address the needs of survivors or take complaints seriously. Over the years, VAWA has strengthened accountability for perpetrators of DV and other forms of gender-based violence; created numerous service programs, such as hotlines and housing programs, designed to mitigate experiences of violence; authorized grants to law enforcement around the country; and more.9 Many of these improvements have been, and remain, crucial, underscoring the importance of the reauthorization of VAWA.

However, VAWA is just one component of a much-needed broader continuum of care and safety that prioritizes the needs of survivors; this includes considering the differing experiences of survivors across communities and building solutions that are culturally competent. The interventions needed to create a robust infrastructure of support must center the experiences of survivors throughout the healing process. Support infrastructure must feature interventions that adopt strong prevention measures to disrupt violence in its earliest forms; minimize economic barriers to services and overall economic costs on survivors; create strong support systems focused on health and safety; tackle the root causes of violence; and build a network of trained professionals to assist survivors along the way and stop illegal and toxic behavior. An infrastructure that is understood to respond only after an incident has occurred, rather than one focused on building a reliable care and safety network, is an infrastructure that fails survivors.

Support in the time of COVID-19

State and local officials have failed to clearly communicate available protections for survivors and to recognize that survivors’ needs have not disappeared in the face this pandemic. Of 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.10 In addition, the federal guidance on essential infrastructure that many states rely upon does not clearly indicate that essential businesses include DV supports such as shelters and other DV programs. Only five states—Colorado, Minnesota, North Carolina, Illinois, and Indiana—exceeded this guidance by explicitly listing DV shelters, and thereby these workers, as essential in state guidance.11 Doing so both clarified protections available to survivors and communicated that state and local officials recognize survivors’ ongoing needs during this pandemic.

It is critical to address gaps in the infrastructure of survivor supports laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic to ensure a sound base of support for survivors at all times as well as to identify what additional supports might be needed during future emergencies. For example, in response to significant increases in call volume to the state-run DV hotline, New York expanded the service from exclusively phone calls to text communication as well as a secure chat online on a state-run website.12 Expansion efforts such as New York’s are important to encouraging wider accessibility to existing supports; however, lawmakers must ensure that the broader infrastructure of survivor supports also addresses the health and economic needs of survivors as integral to their safety and well-being. Furthermore, efforts that do not center survivors may further endanger them, perpetuating abuse and economic insecurity as well as a lack of adequate health coverage.

The relationship between DV and economic insecurity…

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