As the United States is engulfed in a pandemic of unmatched proportions, the country has seen increased levels of domestic violence. This is not a conditional issue but instead presents a series of long-standing, negative impacts on victims of domestic violence, particularly women and children. In order to better address the threat of domestic violence, the US government needs to pass more legislation specifically targeting domestic abuse that will bolster support for existing shelters and organizations. At the same time, the US must further develop plans to best manage the long-term consequences of an uptick in domestic violence levels.
Many countries have seen higher levels of domestic violence reports since mass worldwide outbreaks began. The World Health Organization noted a 60% spike in calls to European domestic violence hotlines in April, and the US is no exception. States including New York and California declared up to 20%-30% increases in hotline calls about domestic violence cases. Even in places where reporting rates had not increased, such as Louisville, Kentucky, activists feared this was due to a lack of victims’ ability to report violence rather than no increased rates of violence.
In response to these trends, the United States dedicated $45 million for emergency shelter and $2 million to the National Domestic Violence Hotline from the $2-trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. However, it lacked targeted measures to provide resources for sexual assault. Legislation proposed this past March would have provided an additional $350 million in funding for domestic violence survivors, but was not passed by the House. While a second stimulus package has not been put forward yet, more support must go toward legislation that specifically addresses increased levels of domestic violence through additional funding and support.
In spite of the knowledge that increased funding does not ensure best practices because the current situation is so fluid, it is critical to take all immediate avenues available to address the major upticks in domestic abuse.
Even as stay-at-home orders are removed, shelters and organizations need greater support in assisting victims. Many victims will no longer be in an economic position to leave abusers, and the long-term impacts of trauma will not disappear overnight. Within the US, centers and support hotlines need more staff and training, vulnerable communities like immigrants and those in poverty need increased protections, and greater enforcement of gun ownership by known abusers must be regulated given the highest spike in gun sales ever recorded in the US.
Another measure that needs to be accounted for in any future stimulus package is the accessibility of counseling services. Even with insurance, copays can be prohibitively expensive, and up to 90% of Americans are unaware of their access to services. Shelters will likely be in greater demand as more people feel secure enough to leave toxic situations and makeshift shelters (like hotels) become unavailable. Organizations will need long-term support in helping those affected by domestic violence regain stability, including rehabilitation programs for offenders. Particularly critical is if there are multiple waves of shelter-in-place orders, which will endanger victims, survivors and the organizations that work to serve them.
A new House proposition, H.R.6633, would require the attorney general to issue guidance to law enforcement agencies as they respond to increased levels of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. It would also better inform agencies of how to address domestic violence crises. This is critical, as many victims are wary of law enforcement. It would be advantageous to allow for court hearings to be held virtually nationwide as well as automatically extending restraining orders, as some states have done. Programs being shifted online could expedite processes to help victims, not just for the short-term, but also provide alternative options long term for survivors of domestic abuse.
There is no one easy fix to deal with the ramifications of increased domestic violence amidst this pandemic. However, efficient government responses help mitigate the negative impact on current victims and protect others from future violence. Managing the impacts of domestic violence is critical as it affects people at all levels, but particularly those already vulnerable to society’s hardships, including, but not exclusive, to those living in poverty, LGBTQ-identifying individuals, immigrants and communities of color.
Domestic abuse is not an issue America can afford to sideline. It is an ongoing systematic problem with long-term, traumatic consequences that affects the entire nation. The United States needs to respond accordingly in the face of dire circumstances.
*[In the US, you can contact The Hotline on 1-800-799-7233 to report domestic abuse.]
*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.