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As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread across the globe it has infected millions of people, killed thousands, devastated the economy, and upended how we live. Many of us have been staying home to mitigate the crisis. But for some, staying home means staying trapped in the epicenter of another deadly virus: domestic violence. 

The CDC defines domestic violence as “physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, and psychological aggression (including coercive acts) by a current or former intimate partner.” The pandemic increases many of the risk factors for domestic violence and decreases access to outside support. Mental health experts say there’s signs that domestic violence and family violence are already spiking worldwide. As mental health professionals, we’ve seen this firsthand. 

Given the heightened risk, the UN released a statement calling upon governments to “uphold the human rights of women and children and come up with urgent measures to the victims of such violence, a UN human rights expert said today.” As the church, we believe we are called to do our part to uphold these rights as an expression of our faith as well. 

Here’s what you need to know about domestic violence and COVID-19 and how you and your church can respond.

How the Coronavirus is Increasing Domestic Violence 

Being in a lockdown situation enables an exacerbation in violence and abuse in the home. For families where there are already risk factors, such as a history of substance abuse, psychiatric illness, unemployment, and of domestic violence, the risk is higher than before. When everyone has to remain in the home, abusers gain more opportunities to act out and more power over victims of domestic violence. 

But even in families that don’t have any of the typical risk factors, the stress of sharing space, heightened anxiety of illness, loss of loved ones, fear of the unknown, unemployment, and a decrease in ways people can de-stress, increase the risk of domestic and family violence.

You don’t need us to tell you how the pandemic is adding to the stress and anxiety of life. It’s not just the fear of getting sick or losing loved ones. We worry about whether we can get the supplies we need: toilet paper, meat, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies. Some of us are desperate for personal space in tight quarters. Others have been on their own at home for weeks, and are deeply lonely. Parents struggle to balance homeschooling with working from home. Many people find themselves unemployed or worry that their business won’t survive long enough to reopen fully. 

Most of us have never been confined at home for so long. We weren’t alive the last time the world experienced a pandemic so widespread. And we’re feeling more frustrated, bored, confused, angry, paranoid, anxious and burned out than normal.

It doesn’t help that many of our psychological defense and coping mechanisms have been literally banned. Not having the freedom to eat out, have family gatherings, worship corporately, and commemorate important life events like funerals, weddings, graduations, and baptisms in the way we normally would has stripped us of many of the ways we managed stress previously. 

Unfortunately, the disappointment, frustration, anger, anxiety, and depression people feel can manifest into abuse and violence toward the people with whom they live.

Who is at risk for domestic violence?

Domestic violence (sometimes called family violence) happens in all age groups, sexes, and races. It is not culturally, socioeconomically, educationally, or religiously biased.

Risk factors for victims of domestic and family violence:

  • Isolation (from work, friends, other family members, etc)
  • Lack of support networks due to quarantine (It has become far more difficult for victims to get help or to escape safely)
  • Unemployment, financial stress
  • History of substance abuse
  • Prior history of domestic violence
  • Marginalized/voiceless, particularly women, children, and minorities, remain the most vulnerable in western societies

Risk factors for perpetrators of domestic and family violence:

  • Past victim of domestic violence
  • History of substance abuse
  • History of mental illness
  • Chronic unemployment

Common methods and signs of abuse to watch for:

  • Abusers apply constant surveillance to isolate their victims.
  • Abusers enforce rigid and detailed rules on how the victim should behave to control victims.
  • Abusers place strict restrictions on basic necessities such as food, clothing and sanitary facilities and limit access to it. This is often where their power over the victims lies.

The Stats: Domestic Violence During COVID-19

According to the CDC, one in four women and one in seven men will experience some kind of physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. And that’s just one form of domestic violence in a non-pandemic situation. Now especially, with more people spending more time at home with increased stressors, domestic violence is on the rise. 

The CDC and SAMSHA are both reporting a likely spike in all forms of domestic violence, including child abuse, intimate partner abuse, and elder abuse within the U.S. NBC News polled 30 U.S. law enforcement agencies, and 22 responded that they had seen a rise in domestic violence since the coronavirus lockdown began. 

The pandemic has created an incubator for domestic and family violence globally. In South Africa, there were nearly 90,000 reports of violence against women in the first week of quarantine. Since the start of the pandemic, the United Nations reports that domestic violence calls in Lebanon and Malaysia have doubled, compared with the same month in 2019. In China, the UN reports that the number of calls has tripled since the Covid-19 pandemic started. In Australia, Google reported a 75 percent increase in online searches for domestic violence. In Turkey, the killing of women has dramatically increased since the stay-at-home order was issued.

The risk won’t necessarily subside with the loosening of lockdown measures. Nina Argawal, a child abuse pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatarics at Columbia University Medical Center, predicts a spike in child abuse rates after the pandemic because educators comprise 20 percent of the child abuse reporting in the United States. Now that the protective measures of schools are not present, Dr. Argawal states that children under five are particularly at risk. 

How the Coronavirus is Impacting People’s Ability to Get Help 

Most of the ways that society normally provides help to people experiencing domestic violence or familial abuse are far less accessible right now because of the coronavirus. So at a time when more people are experiencing domestic violence, there’s far less help available.  

Access to help for those experiencing domestic and family violence under lockdown in North America:

  • Many domestic violence shelters have been temporarily closed. 
  • Most gatherings that typically offer social support are either not occurring or taking place remotely.
  • Child protective services and adult protective services have all limited their in-person services (which includes removing children from their home, foster home interviews, routine check-ins, etc.).
  • Many family, civil, and criminal court proceedings are on hold, limiting access to legal protection for domestic violence survivors and victims. 
  • Compared to normal, people are less likely to reach out for help because they fear contagion. For example, a woman might feel physically safer at home struggling with domestic violence than in the shelter with much more people contact. Emergency room visits have also decreased at this time for that reason. 
  • In this time of quarantine, it is easier and more devastating for abusers to isolate victims in the home and limit access to technology or any means for a victim to reach out (ie: phone, computer, etc). 

What is the Christian Response?

We have a Christian responsibility to take on the burden of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and love our neighbors as ourselves (Deut. 6:4-5; Lev. 19:18; Mark 12:31). Loving our neighbor in the ways we normally do is not possible right now, but we are still called to love our neighbors now. 

In this time of quarantine, love can manifest as a mindful eye, a safe relationship for a victim to receive love and support, or even the awareness of resources that can be of practical help to whomever may need it. While this may feel passive, it is crucial that victims have a safe person or place they can reach out to when they are ready. 

In 2018, more than 800 people and churches from the Reformed Church in America community signed the We Are Speaking statement, committing to work together toward an end to sexual violence, abuse, and violence against women and girls. That work is not finished, and it includes speaking against domestic violence. We have a special responsibility to live out this commitment during this time of quarantine and social distancing.

A final note to readers

This article was written for the average person to understand domestic and family violence basics in this quarantine so they can help with awareness. While this may serve as good baseline information, information does not lead to transformation. We strongly recommend that people experiencing any form of domestic violence be helped by a professional specifically trained in the issue. 

Transformation for individuals and family and church systems will take time and patience, incorporating help from professionals, whether we are in quarantine or not.  Our hope is that now more than ever, we all do what we can, to create the change we need systemically. In Christ, we have faith that all things are possible. 

Lynn Min

I'm a licensed mental health counselor, a certified life coach, a pastor, and a mom of three. Eight years of counseling, decades of working with people in and out of church, and nine years of motherhood- all my caretaking experience has taught me that mental health and spirituality go hand-in-hand. I am convinced that wellness is lived out when we are whole- mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically and relationally. And out of all relationships, the most significant is the one with all the pieces of our own selves, because that is where our inmost beliefs about God and the world first manifest. My work with clients has been to create safe and brave spaces--where couples, families, and even a few brave men--can be radically honest, shed some light into their hearts, and connect with their understanding of the divine, to experience the healing and freedom they need. Every human bears a sacred image of God.  The work is to figure out the messy human stuff so we can let our divine light shine.

Pamela Pater-Ennis
Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Pamela Pater-Ennis, MDiv, LCSW, PhD is a pastoral psychotherapist and Founder/Executive Director at the Hudson River Care and Counseling, with offices both in Hoboken and in Englewood, New Jersey. Dr. Pater-Ennis is also on the faculty of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, NJ. She brings to her ministry more than 30 years of clinical experience in social work and mental health. She also has extensive experience in preaching and in working with congregations in crisis and transition.

She is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker both in New York and New Jersey. She is a graduate of Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and holds a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University and a Masters of Divinity from New Brunswick Theological Seminary. She completed her PhD in Social Work from the University at Albany, the State University of New York. She is married to the Reverend Mark W. Ennis, who is the Pastor of the Clinton Avenue Reformed Church in Bergenfield, New Jersey and is the mother of two grown daughters, Rebecca and Leah, and the grandmother of Zechariah.