Domestic violence against women is a steadily increasing concern among experts in the Philadelphia area due to the ongoing pandemic, according to a recent report by researchers at the Ortner Center on Violence and Abuse at the University of Pennsylvania.
Researchers looked at the effects of Pennsylvania’s declaration of emergency, school closures, and stay-at-home orders on calls to 911 and hotlines for domestic violence, rape, and assault. They found that calls to hotlines regarding domestic violence — which women typically make to seek resources and support — dropped when schools first closed, but have gradually increased.
Calls to 911 for domestic violence did not change. However, the state of emergency declaration was associated with fewer victim calls to the sexual assault hotline and 911 for rape.
Susan Sorenson, director of the Ortner Center and co-author of the new report, said that in talking to local organizations, it didn’t seem that there had been a surge in calls to hotlines, which concerned her.
“Was it because women don’t think it’s safe for them to call? Maybe they didn’t have a safe space from which to call," she said. “We didn’t take the not calling as an indicator of a lack of violence in the home.”
There is mounting evidence of a global surge in domestic violence because of how COVID-19 has forced women to stay home with their abusers, while many support services were disrupted. One Chinese anti-domestic violence nonprofit found that reports doubled in March after cities went into lockdown. In April, the United Nations published a policy brief that domestic violence surges of up to 25% were being reported in many countries, and those numbers likely reflect only the worst cases.
Sorenson said it has been difficult to get a real-time assessment of how severe domestic violence has been during the pandemic. Surveys are often done annually, she said. And if there is a drop in calls to hotlines, it’s important not to confuse that with a drop in violence.
“We need to wait until these annual surveys are done and look at what’s happened in the past year,” Sorenson said. “And then we might have to wait a couple of years to see if it’s related to the pandemic. If someone were to come in and say, violence has dropped because fewer people are calling, that would be a really big mistake and in the long run, a disservice to vulnerable populations and agencies themselves.”
Linda Copel, who runs a domestic violence support group through her private practice as a family therapist in Malvern, said she believes there has been an increase in domestic violence based on what she’s hearing from group members. Copel, a nursing professor at Villanova University, said verbal abuse as a result of financial difficulties and being stuck at home has become a huge problem for some women.
“When the frustration and anxiety increases, people are irritable and edgy and take it out on each other,” she said. “Also, the resources that people have used to cope are nonexistent or have been unavailable for a while.”
Corinne Lagermasini, who heads anti-domestic violence nonprofit Women in Transition, said she was excited to provide Sorenson with information for the report because although staff members collect a lot of data from survivors, they “rarely get to sit down and think about what it all means.” Lagermasini said that when the pandemic first started, no one knew what to expect.
“It was like everyone was holding their breath, and then the avalanche started mid-April,” she said. “Our counselors have had maximum caseloads since then.”
Not only are a lot of new clients calling the organization, but former clients who had stopped seeing their counselors reached out for support, as well, Lagermasini said. Survivors, while resilient, are feeling more helpless because of how the pandemic has complicated their lives. Parents in violent situations are experiencing more feelings of shame and blame for exposing their kids to the violence, she said.
“Everyone is really stressed, everyone is really struggling," Lagermasini said. “People feel like there are more barriers than there were in the past. They’re losing jobs and lifelines. Friends and family who might have been there for support in the past aren’t there anymore. People are feeling more helpless.”