Story by: CASEY GWINN
Long before COVID-19 became a pandemic, there was another pandemic circulating in every country around the world — domestic violence. That pandemic within the pandemic has dramatically increased in recent weeks in the face of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, and its impacts are being felt in powerful and destructive ways. We must creatively and generously offer hope to all those in harm’s way.
Since mid-March, domestic violence calls for help have risen across the country and around the world. The intensity of the violence has also increased. In the United States, we are hearing that the violence is getting more severe than in the past — with one advocate describing the case of a woman beaten and choked four times in a week by her live-in abuser and thinking she must simply stay home and endure his violence.
Though calls for help are up, arrests and prosecutions for domestic violence have dropped in many jurisdictions. Courts are operating at reduced levels and jails and prisons have reduced their populations to avoid exposing inmates to the coronavirus, reducing accountability for abusers.
The result? Domestic violence murder-suicides have also spiked. This past week, Pheonicia Ratliff was kidnapped at gunpoint in front of her house in Canton, Mississippi. Hours later, her ex-boyfriend killed her and then himself on an interstate outside of Philadelphia after a police blockade stopped their car.
In our national tracking at Alliance for HOPE International, domestic violence murder-suicides have risen more than 70% in the last eight weeks, and adult and child victims have felt even more isolated and vulnerable than before the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” orders.
There should be immense public safety concern as domestic violence calls for help and domestic violence murder-suicides continue to rise. Murder-suicides happen at the intersection of rage and despair. They represent the misogynistic rage of abusers and the hopelessness of victims multiplied by the complex impacts of the coronavirus. So many victims were robbed of hope — the ability to set their own goals and find their own pathways in life — long before the virus. Now, their hopelessness is even greater.
What we are seeing is not a surprise and it is not new. We have seen it before in war-torn countries and in places where social controls break down — violence against women and girls increases when offenders face no consequences — then more women and children die. In the absence of adequate resources, victims return to their abusers and face escalating abuse. What gets tolerated, gets perpetuated.
What should our personal responses include? And what should domestic violence prevention organizations do? We can all do three things at a minimum. First, we must push our elected representatives to support the provisions of the new Heroes Act in Congress that seek to increase support for domestic violence service organizations.
In California, we must call on Gov. Gavin Newsom to prioritize such funding as well even with limited resources. We cannot simply accept higher violence and murder-suicide rates as inevitable. Second, we can donate to shelters, Family Justice Centers and other organizations offering tangible hope to adult and child victims. The government has a role but individuals still blessed with jobs and security can donate directly to organizations that help victims. Third, we can use social media to tell victims that they don’t have to stay quarantined in a dangerous situation and they don’t deserve to be abused by their partners.
What is the responsibility of domestic violence prevention organizations? We must use the pandemic as an opportunity to design new ways to help victims. More and more shelters and Family Justice Centers are offering live chat features on their websites, advocating successfully for electronic filing of restraining orders, partnering with hotels and motels to provide additional housing options for victims, and creating virtual, online connections for counseling, safety planning, and advocacy with both adults and children.
Some Family Justice Centers have started proactively calling homes with a history of domestic violence to check on the welfare of family members. Others are now offering services, and even forensic examinations, online depending on what helps survivors feel most comfortable and safe. Our Camp HOPE America program, the first camping and mentoring program focused on children impacted by domestic violence, is doing online art, games and other social connection activities with our kids — connecting directly with them on social media platforms.
We can all offer hope, in creative and generous ways, as we strive to address the pandemic within the pandemic.
Gwinn is president of Alliance for HOPE International and a former San Diego city attorney. He is the co-author of two recent books, “Hope Rising: How the Science of HOPE Can Change Your Life” and “Goodnight Moonbright,” a children’s book on the science of hope. He lives in South Bay.