This post was co-authored by Meredith Eis, a graduate student intern from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan
In a nutshell:
- Intimate partner violence often increases during disasters, and this year’s experience of COVID-19 is no exception.
- Programs that investigate reports of violence and provide assistance to victims have been overwhelmed by demand. At the same time, many have limited services due to the challenge of adopting new infectious disease safety protocols.
- Yesterday’s state appropriation of $4 million for victim services grants will provide needed relief; however, recognizing domestic violence as an ongoing public health issue invites greater attention to health education and monitoring health risks (important, yet chronically underfunded functions of state and local government).
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a need for stay at home orders to protect the public’s health. While prolonged periods of staying at home slowed the rate of viral transmission, an unfortunate increase in intimate partner violence has occurred. Staying at home has helped to protect many of the most vulnerable people in Michigan, but, for some, the further isolation of individuals in their homes has increased risk for victims of abuse.
The unfortunate irony of Michigan’s current situation is that, in an effort to protect the public from COVID-19, other public health issues have received less attention. We recently wrote about the importance of a professional public health workforce to combat the ongoing pandemic; however, diverting all of Michigan’s public health personnel and capacity to deal with COVID-19 inevitably means that other health issues, from childhood immunizations to chronic disease maintenance and prevention, have been neglected.
The Link Between Disasters and Domestic Violence
In times of disaster, the rates and severity of domestic violence tend to increase. There are many reasons for this increase, such as stress tied to job loss, heightened uncertainty, isolation, forced togetherness in households, and an inability to leave the home. Being in the same space 24 hours a day increases opportunities for an abuser to control and monitor their victim, and offers more chances for physical and psychological violence. Volatile situations may escalate because of fewer interactions in businesses, workplaces, and other public spaces with people who could intervene or report abuses.
Increasing Domestic Violence Amid COVID-19
In Michigan, 41.8 percent of women and 23 percent of men experience domestic violence among intimate partners, rates that are higher than other nearby states such as Ohio and Wisconsin. During COVID-19, many Michigan counties have experienced an increase in domestic violence occurrences. The Michigan Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence expresses concerns that further increases in rates are still to come.
Calls to national and local domestic violence and abuse lines have increased, as have reports of domestic violence to authorities. This has corresponded with an increase in the severity of violence and abuse that is reported. When the severity of violence increases, especially strangulation attempts, the risk of death from domestic violence increases as well.
Some communities face greater risks than others. For instance, there were over 18,000 reports of domestic violence in Wayne County in 2018, accounting for nearly 39 percent of all reports for the state. In rural areas of the state, where instances of domestic violence are more likely to go unreported, there are very few support services available.
Separate from geographic disparities, racial/ethnic disparities are also an important consideration. It has been well documented that COVID-19 hit communities of color the hardest; domestic violence also impacts these communities the most. Estimates suggest that 45.1 percent of African American, 56.6 percent of multiracial, and 47.5 percent of Native American women experience domestic violence in their lifetimes.
Gaps in Services
In Michigan, domestic violence services are usually provided by the non-profit sector. In the public sector, the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board develops policy recommendations related to domestic violence, as well as administers state and federal funding for domestic and sexual violence services (often in the form of grants to non-profit service providers). The state also provides information to victims of domestic violence, such as definitions of domestic violence, the phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and a contact list of centers that provide services. The state also provides limited assistance with relocation for individuals who are trying to leave a domestic violence situation and who meet state emergency relief eligibility such as monthly income and asset amounts.
Many counties also provide a crime victim assistance program under the Crime Victim Rights Act. This provides a way to notify victims of their rights and may provide assistance with the legal system. Many county courts (e.g., Livingston, Isabella, and Grand Traverse) provide these types of services, such as accompaniment to court (with orientation to the court and its processes), information on crime victims compensation, status information on the case, and referrals for some community services. Additionally, the Michigan Sheriffs’ Associations provides victims services advocates who are volunteers from the community that can assist victims in understanding victim rights in criminal justice as well as assist with short term crisis intervention.
While beneficial, these programs do not provide confidentiality for victims, nor the many wraparound services that they need such as safety planning, crisis intervention, housing, counseling, advocacy, etc.
Policies to Help Victims
Despite the rise in cases, a corresponding decrease in the availability of services has occurred — services that were already limited without a global pandemic. Without having access to services to help safely plan an escape, provide safe living space and resources, advocate for victims and survivors, and investigate reports of abuse, there is a lower chance of an individual escaping a violent home. Programs and organizations providing these services may require increases in funding to increase capacity to fit the demand that is being seen.
On June 18th, the Michigan Legislature passed a supplemental appropriation of federal CARES Act funding that will direct $4 million to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for victim services grants, to be distributed by the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board. This funding will be a boon to service providers struggling to keep up with demand; however the prevalence and severity of domestic violence in Michigan must be continually monitored to ensure that this level of support provides adequate relief.
Understanding domestic violence as a public health issue reveals a corresponding need for increased investment in public health infrastructure. Public health infrastructure is necessary not only to monitor emergent diseases like COVID-19, but also the many other factors that place people’s health and well-being in jeopardy. Health promotion and education activities may also provide an avenue for addressing this multifaceted issue.
While physical distancing recommendations in Michigan have been relaxed, a need remains for getting victims and survivors of domestic violence (who may continue to feel isolated) the information and services they need. Many crisis line services and advocacy lines exist; advertising these lines would be a valuable health promotion activity, increasing the likelihood that individuals seeking help know how to find and access it. Local services and programs may also benefit from advertising and promotion.
From the standpoint of health education, information for the public might encourage neighbors and extended social networks to be more vigilant and recognize signs of abuse in their community. This might include providing information and resources about helping victims of abuse as well as informing how to report suspected abuse to the right place to help others. Research suggests that it could be highly beneficial to train employees working in professions that interface with communities to identify signs of abuse and know how and where to report it. Many local government personnel, from public works employees to senior center staff, are uniquely positioned to mitigate the spread and continuation of domestic abuse; local government employees should be empowered to act if they see evidence of domestic abuse, and should know where to refer individuals for help if asked.
In order to prepare for the future, the state should provide guidance and assistance to organizations providing domestic violence services and programs to develop contingency plans and emergency response protocols. These plans would help to ensure the reliable access to services by those who need them and can be used to help ensure that future and additional funding will be put to good use.
Though these changes may seem small, they can mean the difference between harm and help for individuals at risk or in dangerous situations.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, help is available through the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or by texting LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9479.