When “Stay-at-Home” is Not an Option: Domestic Violence in the Time of COVID-19

June 11, 2020 - (8 min read)

Dramatic declines in reports of domestic violence and child abuse might otherwise be cause for celebration — but amidst COVID-19, it is actually a source of great concern for advocates and city leaders. Abusers often weaponize isolation and seek to maintain control over their victims, and with the stay-at-home orders still in place in many cities, there is a likelihood that these patterns of abuse are amplified. Cities have a key role to play in helping to keep residents safe, even when their homes may not be.

What Does the Data Show?

Concerns about increased rates of domestic violence, particularly intimate partner violence, have risen despite individual states and cities seeing mixed trends. In Chicago, domestic-violence-related calls increased 12 percent from the beginning of the year through mid-April, relative to the same time period last year. But in New York City, reports of domestic violence-related crimes fell almost 15 percent in March compared to last year. Some domestic violence organizations report shorter and more frantic calls than usual, even if they’ve seen an overall decline in the number of people reaching out.

Independent of individual trends, research suggests that domestic violence is more prevalent following natural disasters and for couples experiencing high levels of financial stress. Cause for additional concern is that only an estimated 50 percent of victims of domestic crimes call the police after an assault by a family member during normal times (even fewer in the case of immigrants and undocumented individuals). Close contact instituted by stay-at-home orders could result in even more dramatic underreporting due to lack of privacy. Early data suggests that abuse could also be increasing in intensity: A two-week period beginning March 28 saw an average of 22 cases of murder-suicide per week nationally, a disturbing jump relative to the average of 11 cases per week since 2011. Almost all of the incidents entailed a man killing his wife or child before taking his own life.

In the case of child abuse, another factor is that educators — who were responsible for 21 percent of the 4.3 million referrals to child protective services made in 2018 — have much less direct contact with students and are more limited in their opportunities to identify warning signs. Los Angles saw a nearly 53 percent drop in suspected child abuse reports in the first month of stay-at-home orders being in place compared to the same time period last year, and similar trends have been seen in New York City, Massachusetts and Michigan.

The Impact of Stay-at-Home Orders and the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted support services in a multitude of ways, and the current circumstances could exacerbate domestic violence and child abuse. Stay-at-home orders and mass unemployment may be keeping people in close contact with their abusers, further isolated from support networks, and limited in terms of having the privacy to issue a report to the police or call a helpline. Courthouse closures postponed hearings, and in-person filing requirements in some cities are also potentially deadly legal hurdles that some victims face in securing emergency protective orders.

Restrictions on movement and health concerns are additional threats to safety and security. The national domestic violence shelter network operates at or over capacity during normal times, and some victims may choose to avoid entering a shelter due to social distancing recommendations and worries about contracting the virus. Other victims may feel less able to escape an abusive situation due to limited financial resources.

Additionally, domestic violence help centers and shelters may see a surge in visits as cities reopen and restrictions loosen, which poses an additional danger for further spread of the virus.

How are Cities Responding to Combat Domestic Violence and Abuse?

In light of distinct dangers posed to vulnerable residents, many cities are taking steps to ensure safety and adequate support for victims of domestic violence and abuse:

The City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County launched Behind Closed Doors, a public safety campaign asking residents to be alert, aware and to report suspected domestic violence. In partnership with the California Grocers Association and Los Angeles Unified School District, the city is able to display important information at grocery stories and food centers with posters highlighting free hotlines, shelters and legal resources.

Similarly, the City of Houston and its partners has launched an awareness campaign that employs social media and a new website, leverages a message delivery system, and includes the distribution of flyers through the local food bank. The city is also helping to ensure safety for vulnerable residents despite reduced shelter capacity by making short-term hotel lodging available, and Uber is offering $50,000 in ride services for victims of human trafficking and domestic violence.

The cities of Chicago and San Francisco are both focused on facilitating secure short-term housing for residents escaping violence. In the case of Chicago, a partnership with Airbnb means that callers to the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline looking to flee a violent situation will be connected with a hotel reservation. The cost of the stay will be covered by The Network, a local domestic violence advocacy organization, with funding from the state. In San Francisco, the city and the district attorney worked with a property owner to secure 20 furnished apartments for survivors of domestic violence for free stays of up to 90 days.

The City of San Antonio has embedded domestic violence interventions within its efforts to address the needs of homeowners and renters. The city’s COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program application includes questions about whether the applicant is experiencing domestic violence and if the respondent clicks yes, they receive an immediate call from the city’s violence prevention services.

In Newport News, Virginia, the police department has hired two domestic violence specialists to work alongside officers, making it possible for them to intervene and engage with victims earlier in the legal process than ever before.

What Can Cities Do Now or During Reopening & Recovery to Support Survivors?

As cities tackle the wide-ranging and ongoing challenges associated with the coronavirus pandemic, city leaders should consider the unintended consequences of necessary policies, as well as the secondary impacts of the virus on vulnerable populations.

Cities can pool funds to develop both short- and long-term solutions. Existing federal funding, Community Development Block Grants and Emergency Solutions Grants have been bolstered by new funding through the CARES Act. These federal dollars can be used to provide hotel and motel vouchers, along with funding other housing-related programs that can offer victims much needed flexibility and security, such as rental assistance and financial assistance for utilities, rental application fees, and security deposits. Along with federal funding, cities can utilize general and philanthropic funding to develop and implement short- and long-term solutions such as making hotlines more digital-friendly or expanding the city’s stock of transitional supportive housing that offers critical wraparound services to residents.

Cities can leverage partnerships. Cities can engage departments or agencies such as Libraries, Housing, Human Services, Neighborhood Development, Police, Parks and Recreation and schools to leverage existing partnerships with community organizations, such as local and regional domestic violence shelters, to get information to individuals and families experiencing domestic violence. Healthcare providers can also be engaged to work with the foster care system and city housing departments to facilitate more permanent supportive housing as a way to improve outcomes for people facing homelessness as a result of escaping violence and to limit costly emergency room visits.

Cities can target resources to communities of color. Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the novel coronavirus, and also experience domestic violence at higher rates. Black, multiracial and Native American people more likely to be victimized through intimate partner violence, therefore it is critical that domestic violence be tackled with a racial equity lens. Cities should aim to provide information and resources in culturally relevant ways, and in the top spoken languages in their community. Resources such as hotlines and social media should have multilingual functionality, and cities can work with trusted community partners and volunteers to distribute information.

Cities can employ trauma-informed approaches to care. People who experience trauma through violence and survivors of intimate partner violence often also experience co-occurring issues related to mental health challenges or substance use disorders. In Omaha, Nebraska, the city is exploring the use of trauma-informed approaches and training to improve outcomes and move toward greater resilience in survivors. As cities refine policies, they can lean on existing evidence-based models such as Communities that Care, or engage nonprofit partners such as Futures Without Violence.

For some people, including those experiencing domestic violence, the pandemic could be a question of life-or-death in more ways than one.


About the Authors

Lauren Lowery is the Program Director for Housing & Community Development at the National League of Cities.





Kirby Gaherty is the program manager for Justice Reform and Youth Engagement in the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.



Screen Shot 2020-04-17 at 10.38.11 AMNatasha Leonard is a graduate student intern for the Center for City Solutions team at the National League of Cities. She is completing her master’s degree in public policy at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Follow her on Twitter @NatashaJLeonard.