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The Unanticipated Risks of Sheltering in Place

April 30, 2020

In March, my employer, Abt Associates, told staff to telecommute to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

As a public health researcher at a global research firm, I was immediately aware of my privilege. I could safely and easily transition to telecommuting from home. And as a someone who has experienced intimate partner violence (IPV), I am acutely aware this is not true for everyone.

The risk of IPV, which encompasses domestic and/or sexual violence, can increase during emergency situations such as natural disasters. COVID-19 is different, posing unique challenges to individuals, communities, and social service systems. In a hurricane, community members and organizations can conduct in-person outreach to those in need. In contrast, the highly infectious COVID-19 virus forces us to confine ourselves in our homes. The measures we take to combat COVID-19 can increase IPV danger in several ways:

  • Isolation: IPV perpetrators use isolation to remove the social support network (work, family gatherings) for getting help or to leave the relationship. Today those connections aren’t possible, increasing perceived and experienced isolation. The perpetrator may monitor phone calls, texts, and emails. And fear of COVID-19 transmission can inhibit efforts to find temporary shelter with friends or family.
  • Economic dependence: COVID-19 is creating financial strain for many. Perpetrators can withhold financial resources and medical assistance to exert their power and trap people in unhealthy relationships.
  • Access to services: Healthcare systems are overwhelmed, and traditional service delivery options have been disrupted.
    • Screening. Screening patients for potential IPV or unsafe conditions during primary care or OB/GYN appointments isn’t available as non-urgent appointments move to the spring and summer.
    • Reproductive health. Perpetrators may restrict a person’s movement outside the home, limiting access to preferred birth control methods, a form of reproductive coercion.
    • Counseling, support groups, and case management. Service providers have moved to virtual approaches, such as telehealth. Use of such platforms raises concerns about surveillance from perpetrators, access to a safe place for a private conversation, and access to the technology to participate in a call or online meeting.
    • IPV shelter-based services. They may be at capacity and not feel safe if those trying to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19 would be living close to others.

These examples address only the challenges faced by partners. Children are also at risk of increased violence and witnessing violence, harming their short- and long-term health and well-being.

How do we support and protect those who may be forced into unsafe situations because of COVID-19? Some resources from national and local organizations like FUTURES Without Violence and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center are available now: IPV hotlines for those who are able to make calls safely; guidance on providing and accessing shelter-based services; tips for family and friends on how to support people experiencing IPV; financial relief efforts for vulnerable communities; and tech safety resources.

But gaps remain. What can we address in the near term?

  • City, county, or state shelter-in-place plans could provide added shelter beds for families in need.
  • Hotels and schools could consider donating rooms to IPV service providers to increase shelter bed capacity.
  • Domestic violence shelters need guidance on COVID-19 screening procedures.
  • IPV service providers, business leaders, and public health departments could collaborate to train front-line health workers, call center teams, teachers and faculty members, and essential workers (e.g., food service, grocery store, transportation employees) with ways to be a potential touchpoint for individuals in need. Essential workers should have palm cards with crisis-line phone numbers and information on local IPV resources.
  • Community outreach groups as well as city, county, and state emergency planning services could add IPV services to their resource lists and ask those calling, texting, or emailing if they feel safe in their homes. In addition, these groups can promote online safety planning resources (e.g., to help survivors explore their options.

It’s tempting to approach long-term solutions with a research mindset, understanding the numbers, thinking of ways to measure people’s experience, and trying to craft a coordinated, universal solution. Even if there were one—a dubious proposition--we can’t wait for perfection. Delay will prevent us from keeping people safe. I am grateful for the services that were available to me when I desperately needed them. Every advocate I talked to, every piece of information I found, and every resource available to my friends and family who supported me--no matter how fragmented--helped immeasurably. And may have saved my life. 

This post also appears on Medium.

#AskAbt: Alexis Marbach Answers Questions on Intimate Partner Violence and COVID-19

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