By Fletcher McClellan and Paige Oustrich
While our government’s public health response has focused on containing, mitigating, and preventing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has neglected to act upon another public health crisis.
Approximately 12 million individuals in the U.S. each year are affected by domestic violence and/or intimate partner violence (IPV). While most victims are female, people from every social group are represented.
When the coronavirus pandemic began a year ago, observers feared it would have dangerous effects on domestic violence in the U.S. Previous research shows that domestic violence and IPV incidents increase during public health emergencies.
At the same time, there was concern that victims would be less able to report abuse. As emergency and social services were redirected to address the pandemic, many victims were left isolated and cut off from receiving and accessing life-saving services, as well as from contacting authorities.
Studies of domestic violence and IPV in Pennsylvania in 2020 indicate both effects are true. According to a NBC10 investigation last fall, hospitals in the Philadelphia region observed a surge in abuse cases but domestic violence hotline activity was down from previous years.
State government data in July showed domestic abuse reports declined in the 2nd quarter of 2020. Adult reports were down 29 percent and 42 percent fewer children sought help. When counties reopened, domestic abuse calls increased.
In some regions of the U.S., calls for help dropped 50% during the first surge of COVID. With schools closed, there was an increase of child abuse, accompanied by fewer visits to doctors. Of those visits, some were converted to telemedicine and not fully private. Evidence in Pennsylvania during the first half of 2020 indicated a rise in child abuse cases.
For her master’s thesis, Paige Oustrich examined requests for and enforcement of Protection from Abuse (PFA) orders in Pennsylvania during the coronavirus pandemic, using preliminary data from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
The findings suggested that the rates of domestic violence and IPV victimization increased statewide.
Since the enactment of stay-at-home orders last spring, the number and percentage of new PFA filings increased with the most significant growth occurring in the months after the initial restrictions were lifted.
On the administrative side, the number of pending PFA matters throughout Pennsylvania at the end of June 2020 was 53 percent higher than the average of the previous three years despite 28 percent fewer filings.
Backlogs from court closures at the initial stages of COVID-19 spread accounted for the increased PFA caseload in the summer, according to both statewide and county data, although a higher rate of domestic abuse cases cannot be ruled out. The responsiveness of the system to reports of abuse varied, depending on what county victims lived in.
The unfortunate reality is that no one really knows the scale of the domestic violence crisis.
County reports are sporadic and record-keeping is haphazard. Remarkably, hospitals are not required to report domestic violence or IPV cases. Abuse victims are treated for injuries that are not necessarily classified as the result of domestic violence.
And, as was stated, many victims cannot report the abuse they have sustained. With abusers in close proximity during stay-at-home periods, school closures, or economic hardship caused by the pandemic, victims are not free to call or message for help.
This epidemic, left unchecked, will have devastating long-term consequences for our communities. Victims of domestic violence and IPV are at a higher risk of developing anxiety, PTSD, depression, and suicidal behavior.
Unaddressed cases of domestic violence and IPV may lead to increases in child abuse both in the coming years and decades, as studies have shown that past domestic violence and IPV are the best predictors of future violence.
The surge in coronavirus cases after the Christmas holidays and the chaotic administration of COVID vaccines mean that the conditions leading to increased domestic abuse will continue. An imminent concern is shelter space for abuse victims.
By failing to recognize the short- and long-term effects the coronavirus pandemic poses to vulnerable populations, state and county governments in Pennsylvania have reinforced a silent pandemic of domestic violence.
The number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233/1-800-787-3224 TTY. To find your nearest emergency shelter, confidential counseling services, legal representation, and economic services in Pennsylvania, please visit www.pcadv.org for resources and information.
Opinion contributor E. Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @McCleleF. Paige Oustrich holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a 2020 master’s of public policy degree from Elizabethtown College. Readers may follow her on Twitter @POustrich.