Domestic abuse is all about power, and the age of coronavirus has created terrifying new weapons for abusers. They might withhold hand sanitizer, or use shelter-at-home orders to prevent victims from going to the grocery store, or outside at all. They might terrorize targets by threatening to cancel their health insurance, or preventing them from getting medical care, or even suggest intentionally afflicting a domestic partner with Covid-19.
Some of these techniques have been reported to advocacy networks, according to the National Domestic Violation Hotline.
There’s indications from around the country and around the world that the current global pandemic has created a situation even more scary than coronavirus for some people — being trapped at home with an abusive partner during quarantines and shelter and home orders.
Reports like this one, from France24.com, are disturbing, and easy to find: “In China, which is slowly emerging from several weeks of total lockdown, the women’s rights organization Weiping has reported a threefold increase in reports of violence against women.”
“Now violence, too, has been confined. That’s what we’re afraid of,” Martine Brousse, head of Parisian organisation La Voix de l’Enfant (The Child’s Voice), told France 24.
DC Safe, the largest crisis intervention agency in the city, told WTOP in Washington that calls to its organization had doubled.
CNBC.com reporter Yelena Dzhanova did a lot of heavy lifting and called a wide set of shelters and agencies in the U.S. Disturbingly, many shelters find their workload light right now, as victims are forced to make an awful choice between sheltering at home in danger, or risking infection by staying in a shelter with strangers.
Help for victims specific to the pandemic
Late last week, a group of Duke University students led by professor David Hoffman reached out to me for help getting started on a research project around domestic violence in the age of coronavirus, and the role technology might play in making the problem worse, or better, or both. We’re deep in that work now, but I want to share some of the findings immediately, in case it might help someone suffering from this circumstance right now.
On Tuesday, we talked with Rachel Gibson, senior technology safety specialist at The National Network to End Domestic Violence. She had a lot of practical suggestions.
“Leaving is hard. Leaving is one of the most dangerous times. Add a pandemic onto that and the amount of stress and trauma is going to go up tenfold,” she said. “When you are sheltering at home, the ability to go out and seek services dwindles…So we are thinking of alternative ways survivors can safety plan around that.”
The key question most victims stuck at home with an abuser faces is: How can they reach out for help? There’s no perfect answer, Gibson said.
“Think, ‘Maybe I can’t call but I can discreetly chat.’ But make sure (victims) know if they do chat there may be a trace of that…(so we are) helping them figure out if they can use these platforms in a secure way.” Gibson said. In one case, a victim used the online game “Words With Friend” to ask for help, she said. In other situations, victims have gone really “old school” and send old-fashioned snail mail.
“Whatever the safety planning strategy is, there is not going to be one technique that is going to be failproof,” she said. “There’s always going to be a risk.”
It’s also important to train bystanders to look for signs of a cry for help, Gibson said. And in the age of coronavirus, there are a whole new set of people who will have to act as bystanders.
“If the grocery store is the only place you can go, reach out to the grocery store workers… How do we help prepare them for their role as bystanders?” she said. “Maybe they can’t contact victim services but they still contact their boss.”
We also talked with Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She’s well known for her work in the fight against stalkerware, technology than can be used by abusers to track their victims. She said stalkerware is less of an immediate issue right now because victims might be confined in the same housing as their abusers. But she was worried that abusers might take advantage of the current close quarters to gain access to their target’s cell phones or other hardware and install spyware, or use this time to shoulder-surf passwords for later illegal surveillance.
She added that victims who want to find help online while hiding their tracks — avoiding an obvious visit to a domestic violence hotline website, for example — can visit GoAskRose.com. The site’s name appears innocuous in a user’s browser history.
The issue of getting help is dramatically complicated by necessary precautions taken by shelters to protect their employees; many have switched to teleconferences for meeting and helping victims.
“Our team has been heavily focused on the needs of local programs that are trying to quickly move to remote work and communication while ensuring privacy and confidentiality,” said Erica Olsen, director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “We created several resources around that and we’ll now be turning our focus on developing some information for survivors who are relying on tech at this time. Our current Survivor Tech & Privacy Toolkit will still be helpful, but we also want to create some content that is really specific to this crisis.
“Beyond our team, NNEDV has been creating and compiling resources on a COVID-19 page that is continuously updated. Some of the most specific content for survivors is from NNEDV’s WomensLaw.org project on navigating courts at this time and the National Domestic Violence Hotline has a page on staying safe during COVID-19.”
Here’s their list of menacing behaviors to watch out for:
- Abusive partners may share misinformation about the pandemic to control or frighten survivors, or to prevent them from seeking appropriate medical attention if they have symptoms.
- Abusive partners may withhold necessary items, such as hand sanitizer or disinfectants.
- Abusive partners may withhold insurance cards, threaten to cancel insurance, or prevent survivors from seeking medical attention if they need it.
- Programs that serve survivors may be significantly impacted –- shelters may be full or may even stop intakes altogether. Survivors may also fear entering shelter because of being in close quarters with groups of people.
- Survivors who are older or have chronic heart or lung conditions may be at increased risk in public places where they would typically get support, like shelters, counseling centers, or courthouses.
- Travel restrictions may impact a survivor’s escape or safety plan – it may not be safe for them to use public transportation or to fly.
- An abusive partner may feel more justified and escalate their isolation tactics.
Here’s what (their) Advocates have heard from some survivors reaching out:
- “A chatter mentioned that the abuser was using the virus as a scare tactic to keep the survivor away from their kids.”
- A chatter said the abuser was using COVID-19 as a scare tactic so that they would not visit family.”
- “A health professional still living with their abuser called and said they were physically abused that night because their abuser was sure they were trying to infect them with COVID-19.
hen an argument breaks out, it’s important to identify the safest place in the house, away from objects that may be weaponized, like the kitchen and bathroom. Prepare for a situation where an abuser might hide essential supplies, like soap.”