Five years into the marriage, and he was still a mean drunk. He’d shove her against the wall of their Brooklyn home and punch the wall next to her face. Another time he actually did punch her in the face; a professional makeup artist, she concealed her bruises so clients wouldn’t suspect.
They had a young daughter, but that didn’t deter him. “There were incidents where she would run to her mother-in-law’s house in the middle of the night, wearing barely any clothes, with the child,” said Luba Reife of Sanctuary for Families, where the woman sought help. But she couldn’t lean on her mother-in-law at the height of a viral pandemic, and going to a shelter was unthinkable. Suddenly, Reife said, “she had nowhere to go.”
The coronavirus pandemic forced countless victims of domestic violence into the same dilemma – trapped in an abusive situation without the usual avenues of relief. The virus intensified a pre-existing crisis, advocates say. Reports of domestic violence spiked citywide in March and May, then plummeted in April, with a smaller reduction in June, according to police data.
These numbers, experts say, tell a story not of a decline in domestic violence, but of victims struggling to cope with the pandemic and a support system hamstrung by the restrictions intended to control it.
Although official complaints of domestic violence-related sexual and felony assault fell when the pandemic broke out, statistics from the New York Police Department show that a spike in 911 calls led to an overall rise in reports of 8.6% in March compared to 2019. The numbers also show a year-over-year increase in May, this time of 3.8%, though reports were down by 2.8% in April and by 4.9% in June.
Experts were quick to point out that a decline in calls doesn’t necessarily represent a reduction in violence. Police reports are “not a reliable measure of actual domestic violence incidents,” cautioned Claire Renzetti, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky. In fact, she said, the NYPD data is probably “just the tip of the iceberg.”
“What you’re talking about here is the height of the pandemic. People were scared to have 911 at their house,” agreed Reife, Sanctuary for Families’ deputy director of the Manhattan Family Law Project. “I had incidents where clients called us trying to get an order of protection, and we told them their abuser should be arrested, but they resisted calling the police for fear of the virus.”
Sometimes, that fear even extended to concern for abusers. Reife described one client, a medical professional in her 60s, who contacted Sanctuary for Families on March 31 after her ex-boyfriend had called her over 60 times a day for nearly a week. “He was calling her sister, calling her son,” said Reife. “He’d say he loved her but also call her names, clearly intoxicated.”
But the client was reluctant to call the police, worried that if her ex-boyfriend, also in his 60s, was arrested and taken to central booking, he’d be at high risk of catching the virus. “On the one hand she wanted the abuse to stop, but on the other hand she was nervous about his being an elderly man and being in danger,” Reife said. The client eventually did involve the police, but “she put off calling them because of the virus.”
Survivors may even have concluded that they faced more danger from the coronavirus than from their abusers. “In March and April, you knew nothing about the virus, and really didn’t know whether pushes and slaps were safer,” Reife explained. “Now we can say that, at the end of the day, getting stabbed is more likely to kill you than the risk of COVID-19. But we couldn’t say that back in April – people were dying.”
Victims also may have delayed contacting police in the hopes that the pandemic would end by May, said Laura Russell, director of the Family/Domestic Violence Unit of the Legal Aid Society. Victims expected the courts to reopen quickly, and endured abuse for longer than they would have if they’d know how long the pandemic would continue. Towards the end of April, Russell said, people “started to crack,” accounting for the second spike in calls in May.
Service agencies have struggled to navigate the challenges of the coronavirus, particularly in low-income communities. In neighborhoods with high immigrant populations, “we have a clientele who are not native English speakers,” said Russell. In the past, bilingual clerks at family court and agency staff served as translators. But now, with agencies and the courts operating by telephone, victims may be deterred when they face multiple phone calls just to be understood.
Seeking help also becomes particularly difficult for domestic violence victims stuck living with their partners in close quarters, Russell said. “People can hear, people can see texting, people are hovering over each other.” She has one client she can call only between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m. when her spouse isn’t at home: “She can talk to me then for only that half hour. We’re doing workarounds, but it’s difficult.”
Moreover, the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic hit low-income neighborhoods hard, said Rosaana Conforme, senior clinical director of Violence Intervention Program, Inc. Counseling sessions that once focused on trauma therapy and case management contended instead with hunger, housing and other financial hardships. Especially in April, Conforme said, “domestic violence was on the back burner.”
But things weren’t necessarily brighter for survivors whose abusers were still working. If anything, that worsened the power dynamics in abusive relationships. The makeup artist in Brooklyn is married to a city bus driver who kept his job throughout the pandemic. But her makeup business evaporated, and without her own income, she had no way to support herself and her daughter independently.
“This could have been remedied before by her filing for child and spousal support,” said Reife. But family courts haven’t been hearing new support petitions since March.
Though the police have not yet released more recent domestic violence reports, local nonprofits report that the crisis continues, with women like Reife’s client stuck in legal limbo and entirely dependent on their abusers for financial support.
For researchers like Renzetti, the police numbers are grim but predictable. “We see spikes in domestic violence during natural disasters, and we also see changes during periods of deep recession,” she said. “So we have a confluence of problems here – an economic shutdown and a pandemic. I don’t think anyone who works with domestic violence victims is surprised by what’s going on.”
(Graph by Clare Amari)