Guest Column
Domestic violence rose more than 8% during lockdowns | Column
Our study has troubling findings, but there are some solutions.
Community Action Stops Abuse used yard signs last year to raise awareness of domestic abuse.
Community Action Stops Abuse used yard signs last year to raise awareness of domestic abuse. [ Community Action Stops Abuse ]
Published March 5, 2021|Updated March 5, 2021

Domestic violence has risen alarmingly in the United States during the pandemic, but there are several practical measures we can take to make women safer.

As the coronavirus spread, public health messengers encouraged Americans to shelter in place — and cities and states issued widespread lockdown orders. For many, however, such measures only elevated the risk of assault; for them, home may have been virus-free, but it was not violence-free. In fact, a team of researchers I led found an 8.1% increase in U.S. domestic violence after lockdown orders were imposed. We released our study documenting the effects of these troubling dynamics just a few days ago.

Alex R. Piquero
Alex R. Piquero [ Courtesy of Alex R. Piquero ]

Domestic violence can take many forms, from rape and other physical violence to stalking and emotional abuse. Statistics from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence show that, on average, nearly 20 people per minute — or 10 million annually — are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States.

Our study, prepared for the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, offered the first systematic review of studies documenting the increase in domestic violence incidents during the pandemic. Our findings were based on an assessment of 18 studies from the United States and abroad and compared the changes in domestic violence incidents before and after lockdowns.

Unlike most studies earlier in the pandemic, which were based solely on calls for service to police, our work also drew on data from crime reports, emergency hotline registries, hospital and other health records and additional administrative documents. We found that no matter how the domestic violence incidents were measured, the results were the same: Pandemic lockdowns, while necessary to stop the spread of the virus, led to more domestic violence — more victims of abuse.

While it’s difficult to identify the precise dynamics driving the increase, we have some well-informed theories. We know that the factors typically associated with domestic violence include increased male unemployment, stress and financial insecurity. And the pandemic — with its job losses, home-schooling mandates and orders to shelter in place — undoubtedly exacerbated all of those. Poor coping strategies, including the increased use of alcohol and other substances, also may have contributed to the rise in abuse.

Compounding the situation, COVID-19′s isolating effects left parents and children cut off from friends, neighbors, colleagues and others who might have reported signs of abuse and violence, and could have intervened to help potential victims escape violent situations. It all added up to a perfect storm of factors creating elevated levels of risk.

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History suggests our estimates of the increase are more likely a floor than a ceiling. We have little doubt that the 8.1% rise in violence is, in fact, much larger, especially considering potential increases in emotional violence, which is rarely brought to the attention of police, as well as children’s exposure to violence in the home.

What lessons do these findings provide for the future? Many, but I have three ideas to share now.

First, social and health services agencies should plan ahead to ensure jurisdictions have sufficient shelter beds and other resources available, both for women at risk and their children.

Second, police departments and other agencies could be called upon to perform welfare checks on prior victims to assess their well-being.

Third, technology should be harnessed — perhaps via apps — to help domestic violence victims get in touch with authorities quickly and discreetly.

While it is hard to overstate the adverse impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on all of our lives, its effects on the most vulnerable among us are particularly troubling. The rise in domestic violence during the time of COVID-19 is, in a sense, a pandemic within the pandemic. Let’s give it the attention that its victims deserve.

Alex R. Piquero is chair of the Department of Sociology and Arts & Sciences Distinguished Scholar at the University of Miami. The study’s other authors are Wesley G. Jennings, University of Mississippi; Erin Jemison, the Crime and Justice Institute; Catherine (Katie) Kaukinen, University of Central Florida; and Felicia Marie Knaul, University of Miami.