As America on ‘Pause’ continues, we are all told to stay at home and/or work from home. For some families, that is a dangerous proposition. The places we call ‘home’, for many, are not always safe havens for the adults or the children who live there.
COVID-19 has caused major economic devastation, and has disconnected many from community resources and support systems. The widespread uncertainty of life today has many people confused and has brought forth panic, anxiety and intense stress. Some are angry, while others feel depressed. The range of emotions is wide and without positive outlets to identify and manage these emotions, home can become a dangerous and unhealthy place to be.
Some conditions may lead to violence in families where it never existed before and in homes where violence and maltreatment has been a problem. Violence in the home has an overall cost to society, leading to potentially negative physical and mental health outcomes. These outcomes include substance use, depression, a higher risk of chronic disease and PTSD. Victims of domestic violence and child abuse and neglect are at greater risk for injuries that result in fatal outcomes.
The CDC estimates that 1 in 4 women and almost 1 in 10 men have experienced intimate partner violence[IPV], sexual and physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime. More than 43 million women and 38 million men experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Data from U.S. crime reports that 16%[1 in 6] of homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner.
Before this pandemic, a victim or survivor could leave a situation or file a protective order with the police. Right now, however, these options aren’t available to many. A stay-at-home order can force victims to remain in a dangerous environment.
CDC reports that at least 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse and/or neglect in the past year and in 2018, almost 1,770 children died of abuse and neglect in the U.S. Rates of child abuse and neglect are five times higher for children in families with low socioeconomic status compared to children in families with higher socioeconomic status. Child abuse and neglect can have a tremendous impact on lifelong health and well-being if left untreated. Exposure to violence in childhood increases the risks of injury, future violence victimization and perpetration, substance abuse, delayed brain development, sexually transmitted infections, lower educational attainment and limited employment opportunities.
During COVID-19, children are especially vulnerable to abuse. Increased stress levels among parents is a major predictor of physical abuse and neglect of children. When parents are stressed, they are more likely to respond to their child’s anxious behaviors or demands in aggressive and abusive ways. The support systems we are used to, like extended family, schools and child care, religious groups and other community-based organizations, are not available for many due to social distancing and the stay at home orders.
Police and emergency services are interrupted and/or discouraged for many. In New York City, for example, a TV public service announcement openly states that residents should not call emergency services, 911, unless the emergency is ‘really serious’ or ‘grave’. While I understand the message’s purpose, the interpretation of the message for some, tells them that unless they are literally about to die, they should not call for help. The general public safety is now put through triage and prioritized to determine the how fast front line workers respond or whether they respond at all. That is a dangerous message, particularly for children, the most vulnerable.
Calling 911 is not always an option for a child, and the police or emergency medical services only respond after a parent frantically calls for help. At that point, the child in more urgent need of emergency services, is not breathing and/or has been severely injured. Child protective service agencies now have strained resources and working on limited staff, making workers unable to conduct home visits in many areas with stay at home orders. Children are not in school, making teachers and counselors unable to witness signs of abuse and promptly report to the proper authorities.
All of these facts and statistics, the data, inform us that we send strong wide-reaching messages to victims and survivors that make it clear that help is still available. We can work with law enforcement and other local and state personnel to help them understand that rigid stay at home or ‘sheltering in place’ orders need be more relaxed when the home is unsafe.
Virtual counseling can be offered or telephone check-ins made available. Hotels/motels and hospitality industries have always provided help to house the homeless or healthcare practitioners. Remember Tina Turner’s autobiography? Escaping an abusive relationship, she was aided by hoteliers, who allowed her a room for safety. The vulnerable populations affected by domestic violence can use these services.
We must ensure that healthcare practitioners are screening patients for intimate partner violence and child abuse. Last and equally, if not more important, is that neighbors be neighborly, no matter where the location. Check in on one another, and if you see, hear or suspect a dangerous situation, make those 911 calls. It could be life-saving. Let your neighbors know that someone cares and will do what they can to be supportive. We need random acts of kindness, especially in this time of crisis, while still practicing social distancing.
For a few of the resources to help families and communities address and prevent intimate partner violence[domestic violence] and child abuse and/or neglect, see below:
- Substance Abuse Treatment and Domestic Violence- Quick Guide for Clinicians Based on TIP 25- https://store.samhsa.gov/product/Substance-Abuse-Treatment-and-Domestic-Violence/sma15-3583
- The National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health, a SAMHSA partner, recently released: Supporting Survivors’ Access to Substance Use Disorder and Mental Health Services During the COVID-19 Emergency http://www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/2020/03/covid-19-resources-for-advocates/
- National Domestic Violence Hotline https://www.thehotline.org/2020/03/13/staying-safe-during-covid-19/ Phone number:1-800-799-SAFE
- Prevent Child Abuse America https://preventchildabuse.org/coronavirus-resources
- APA “How COVID-19 may increase domestic violence and child abuse”: https://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/domestic-violence-child-abuse
As always, do not hesitate to call 911! STAY SAFE.