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From Pandemic to Endemic: Relationship Violence Due to COVID

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Janette Ballard

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Relationship Violence

The novel coronavirus has created unprecedented challenges that were unforeseeable two years ago. The University of Denver is bringing together experts from around the country to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on individuals, relationships, mental health and workplaces during the second annual Seeking Tomorrow’s Answers Together (STAT) Conference on January 26.

The DU Newsroom is also exploring many of these challenges by speaking with faculty experts about the issues that have arisen or have been exacerbated because of the pandemic. Anne DePrince is a professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences. She and her research team study trauma with an emphasis on intimate violence, which disproportionately affects women and children. DePrince shares her thoughts about relationship violence during the pandemic in this interview with the DU Newsroom.

COVID upended many lives. How did the pandemic lead to an increase in relationship violence?

Anne DePrince
Anne DePrince

Domestic violence rates increased in the U.S. and around the world during lockdowns, according to recent research. During lockdowns, accessing services was more difficult: Emergency shelters had even more limited capacity than usual because of COVID-19 safety protocols. Abusive partners could more easily monitor victims’ communications, making it difficult to access services from home. In addition, COVID created additional opportunities for abusive partners to coerce and control victims, whether by stealing unemployment checks or using COVID as an excuse to control victims’ contacts with friends and family or their access to healthcare. However, those coercive and controlling dynamics existed long before the pandemic.

In monitoring COVID impacts with our partners at the Legal Information Network of Colorado (LINC), my research team has seen that COVID has made court processes longer and worsened technological challenges for victims trying to get their legal needs met. However, service access isn’t the only factor to consider in terms of understanding the increase in intimate violence. For example, past research links economic uncertainty to intimate partner control and abuse, and the pandemic increased economic insecurity across the country.

Kids didn’t have access to school resources during lockdowns. Since schools have reopened, has there been an increase in kids seeking help?

Since the pandemic began, concerns about child and adolescent mental health, such as depression and anxiety, have been on the rise. Researchers have indeed documented increases in mental health symptoms in both children and adolescents and raised concerns about the impact of the pandemic on marginalized youth. For example, one research team found that gender diverse and transgender youth reported more service disruption than their peers. In response to COVID-19, we’ve seen clinics, including university clinics such as the Center for Child and Family Psychology in the Department of Psychology, pivot to rapidly rollout remote mental health services. Those innovations have been critically important to continue to flexibly provide services over nearly two years of COVID constraints, but the U.S. has long faced a shortage of health services in schools that predates the pandemic. For example, many schools don’t have adequate counseling and nursing services on site to support children and adolescents. 

Mental health facilities are facing staffing shortages. Has this worsened during the pandemic? Where can victims of relationship violence find services and support?

Both local and national services can be a lifeline for survivors. In Denver, for example, the Rose Andom Center brings together a host of services for domestic violence victims and survivors under one roof. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has phone and chat options for help as well as options for people deaf or hard of hearing or who speak Spanish. That said, even before the pandemic, services in most of our communities were dreadfully insufficient to meet the needs of domestic violence victims and survivors. For example, shelters have struggled with inadequate funding and often do not have enough beds in cities, and can be rare or nonexistent in rural areas. These problems have been magnified over the last two years in various ways. For example, federal, state, and local funding for victim services has been inconsistent, and in some cases decreasing dramatically. When my research team recently evaluated the impact of federal victim service funds in Colorado, we found that victim service agencies increased the number of services provided from 2015 to 2019, but could not keep pace with the needs in their communities.

What have we learned about relationship violence during COVID?

COVID revealed the realities of relationship violence to a broader public — that intimate violence is dreadfully common and getting resources can be incredibly difficult. Of course, that was already the case before the pandemic. Reporting in the U.S and around the world about women being locked down with their abusive partners gave people new insight into how intractable relationship violence can be. We need that awareness to translate into action to better equip our communities to prevent and respond to relationships violence, long after the COVID-19 crisis ends.

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