New App Takes on Rise in Intimate Partner Violence

New App Takes on Rise in Intimate Partner Violence

A social media campaign promotes the PROMiSE app to women ages 18 to 49.

A social media campaign promotes the PROMiSE app to women ages 18 to 49.

New App Takes on Rise in Intimate Partner Violence

A new digital tool aims to help those at risk of abuse in the era of COVID-19, quarantines, and social service cutbacks.

Sunny photos of home furnishings disguise a potentially lifesaving app. Created by public health scientists with input from abuse survivors and service providers, the app allows users to toggle quickly between safety resources and innocuous images of domestic decor.

“The women we interviewed told us that since users would likely be accessing this content in close proximity to their abusers, the app would need to be disguised in a way that doesn’t raise suspicion,” explains Nicholas Metheny, an assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Nursing and Health Studies. “To achieve this, we worked with our developers to overlay the content onto the HGTV webpage so it’s not immediately apparent what the user is looking at.” 

Dr. Metheny, who joined the faculty of SONHS this summer, is co-principal investigator of the Canadian research team that launched the PROMiSE app (PROMoting Safety in Emergencies, with funding from St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation. Launched earlier this month, the app is currently tailored for the Greater Toronto area, but Metheny and Dr. Patricia O'Campo, his co-principal investigator at theMAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, aremaking its source code available to anyone who would like to adapt it to their own geographic area and resources.

“This app is meant to capitalize on safety plans and safety planning activities while providing linkages to resources that are still up and running or available to help people in different ways than they did before COVID-19, such as through telehealth or home visitation,” says Metheny. “Gender-based violence has increased significantly because of the strain COVID-19 is placing on individuals, relationships, and our entire social fabric.”

The app’s launch coincided with the United Nations’ 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign, held November 25 to December 10 annually.

Metheny spoke to SONHS News about the importance of a safety planning app tailored to helping women escape domestic violence at a time when leaving home is harder than ever.


SN: First, how did you decide to focus your research on intimate partner violence (IPV)?

NM: I have focused on dating violence and IPV since my first semester of college, when I joined a peer education group that went around to all the male dorms and gave presentations on dating violence and what to do if a friend is sexually assaulted. I became so invested in understanding why IPV happens and how to prevent it, and this followed me all the way through nursing school, graduate school, and my PhD. IPV is happening all around us. We need programs and interventions aimed at maximizing the safety of those who are experiencing it now, but at the same time we need to be making progress on the larger, structural issues that lead to violence in the first place. 


What is the significance of launching an app like PROMiSE in the wake of COVID-19?

PROMiSE is designed with the input of over 100 survivors of IPV and IPV service providers who told us explicitly that traditional IPV resources like shelters and hotlines, along with traditional advice for women experiencing IPV, just don’t work well during COVID-19. IPV services are simultaneously dealing with a drop off in funding, an increase in demand, and an inability to take in as many people as they’d like due to pandemic precautions. It’s more difficult to access IPV services now than before COVID. Shelters may only be able to fill a third of their spots because of social distancing, or they may have had to lay off staff due to funding cuts and canceled fundraising events. PROMiSE works within the realities of this simultaneously increased demand for and decreased supply of IPV services by putting the power in women’s hands to take actions that maximize their safety given current service limitations. Of course, users still have access to local IPV services and support, but we hope this app empowers women to plan for their safety in ways that are feasible and safe. We are also working on integrating the app into outpatient clinics in Toronto so that women can access it before seeing their provider.


How does the PROMiSE app work?

Basically, you answer 10 questions about the danger in your relationship and if it’s super-dangerous, the user is told to call two numbers. One of them is 911. If it is below a certain threshold, the app tells the user to keep an eye on the situation and offers resources. Respondents who fall somewhere in a broad middle range are directed to the PROMiSE site to answer more questions about their safety priorities and put together safety plans. The user picks specific priorities they have at that particular time, like housing, security, legal, financial, children, and then the app provides relevant activities and resources. The app also provides specific activities everyone can take to stay safe online (like clearing browser histories and cache) as well as techniques our partners told us would promote safety, like keeping logs of violent incidents, telling a trusted friend, and gathering a “go bag” to use if and when the time comes.


For those not involved in studying IPV and violence against women, what is the top thing we should be aware of? 

IPV affects every facet of society, irrespective of class, race, age, sexuality, gender identity, etc. However, marginalization greatly increases the risk of violence. That’s why reducing marginalization through broad, structural changes is the most effective way to stop IPV. Things like universal health care, marriage equality, racial justice—these can all be thought of as IPV interventions as well.


What are key takeaways to share with anyone who may not feel safe in their current living situation?

You are not alone. Reach out to someone you trust and tell them your concerns. Taking other steps to maximize your safety like stowing small amounts of money away, making copies of important papers, having people around you who know your situation, and keeping logs of abusive incidents can all help maximize safety and help someone plan to leave an unsafe relationship. Don’t be afraid to reach out to domestic violence services, either. Even in these uncertain times, they are doing everything they possibly can to help people in need.