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With the advent of the novel coronavirus (or COVID-19), many companies are choosing to let employees work from home in an effort to curtail the spread of illness. In most cases, this is a prudent decision, but for people who are experiencing domestic violence, a mandate to self-isolate can be a virtual prison sentence.
The issue of domestic violence in America affects roughly 1 in 3 women and 1 in 7 men, the vast majority of which are employed full time. With offices and facilities temporarily closing, many of these victims will lose the support that the workplace offers and the 8-12 hours of abuse free respite it gives them each day. Being trapped at home with an abuser is bad enough, but when coupled with the added financial and emotional stress of a pandemic, such situations may result in an increased risk of assault or even intimate partner homicide. Although there is little research on the effects that a widespread illness can have on abuse, we can glean some information from the body of knowledge around natural disasters and the increase in violence that often follows.
Why does this happen, and what can employers do to help?
Multiple worldwide studies over the past few decades have shown that instances of interpersonal violence can increase in the wake of community-wide disasters. For example, after Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of South Florida in 1992, the University of Miami's Disaster and Community Crisis Center noted a 50% uptick in calls to the city’s domestic violence hotline. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, researchers documented a 98% spike in the physical victimization of women (Schumacher, et al., 2010). Similarly, a survey done after the BP oil spill in southern Louisiana showed that calls to the statewide abuse hotline jumped by 81 percent over 2 months (Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence).
Victims of domestic violence face unique barriers to assistance post-disaster, and it’s not difficult to see the parallels between the current COVID-19 crisis and life-changing events like earthquakes and floods. Families under mandated or self-imposed quarantine due to symptoms of the illness, a potential exposure, or the risk thereof may face economic and social stressors that are known to exacerbate the risk of abuse. For example, a victim or perpetrator may have lost their job or have reduced work hours and income as the result of business closures (an effect that can be enhanced if financial problems were already an issue). A scarcity of provisions and the fear of the unknown can also contribute to household stress, thereby elevating the potential for violence In 1992, researcher S. Coontz found that pre-existing risk factors for domestic violence are compounded by individual feelings of helplessness and a “loss of control over the well-being and protection of one's family.” While abuse is the opposite of protecting one's family, feelings of anxiety and impotence may cause batterers to engage in domestic violence in order to regain a semblance of power and control over their circumstances.
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Surviving and escaping domestic violence is difficult enough in a non-stressed social climate, but victims of abuse may face specific challenges amidst a pandemic such as COVID-19. Self-isolation can mean that crucial support networks of friends and family are temporarily dismantled and visits to doctors, therapists, support groups, or batterer’s intervention programs may be canceled. The breakdown of normal social interactions and schedules can also adversely impact pre-existing mental health conditions or substance abuse issues. Additionally, events such as the closure of communal living shelters may require a victim to remain with or return to their abuser out of necessity. Lastly, police and emergency services may be reduced as law enforcement and medical agencies across the country limit their response to non-life threatening calls for assistance.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus has undoubtedly impacted the ability of all Americans to feel safe and certain over the wellbeing of ourselves and our loved ones. While employers may not have a legal responsibility to intervene in domestic violence incidents outside the workplace, they must understand that patterns of interpersonal abuse don’t stop when victims return to work. What happens outside the office can affect an employee’s ability to stay safe, work from home, or resume a normal schedule when the pandemic passes. Even in times of quarantine, employers still bear an ethical duty to assist their workers remotely. Therefore, I recommend the following actions:
- Remind employees through written and electronic communications that EAP services are still available by phone during workplace closures
- Disseminate the National Domestic Violence Hotline number to provide resource options and in-home safety planning for victims: 1-800-799-SAFE
- Assign a human resources point of contact to regularly (and safely) check-in with known employee domestic violence cases
- Be willing to offer “outside the box” solutions to employees in need, such as hotel vouchers for victims requiring shelter
- Incorporate the needs of abused employees into business continuity and disaster response plans
- Enable threat assessment teams to work remotely and use video conferencing to maintain a regular meeting schedule
- Consult with a subject matter expert regarding high-risk cases and overall employee resource awareness
Editor's Note: Lynn Fairweather, MSW, is an abuse survivor who has
worked in the domestic violence response and prevention field for over
23 years. As principal of Presage Consulting and Training,
she provides professionals with domestic violence threat assessment and
management training, workplace violence program and policy
consultations, and 24/7 individual case response. Lynn is the President
of Oregon VAWPAC, America’s only political action committee focused on violence against women, and is author of Stop Signs: Recognizing, Avoiding and Escaping Abusive Relationships.
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