Health and Medicine People and Community

Report confirms pandemic-related spikes in domestic violence

Led by the University of Miami, a study suggests that quarantines spurred by coronavirus safety precautions have increased physical abuse across the nation and around the world.
Black and white image of a woman shielding her face with her arm

Last April, as the novel coronavirus marched relentlessly across the country, United Nations Secretary Antonio Guterres urged the world to address the “horrifying surge in domestic violence” that mandatory lockdowns were triggering across the globe. 

Now, a new analysis led by the University of Miami for the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, confirmed that stay-at-home orders essential to suppressing the highly contagious virus had the negative consequence of increasing domestic violence incidents by more than 8 percent in the United States alone. 

“When you have individuals who are not used to being together 24/7, you’re going to have pent-up stress and anxiety,” said Alex Piquero, chair of the University’s Department of Sociology, who led the study at the request of the commission established to evaluate the pandemic’s impact on the justice system. “Add to that all the problems we’ve seen during the pandemic—with people losing their jobs, with children schooled at home, with increased alcohol sales and opioid use—it’s easy to imagine a world where people who are trapped together are going to lash out at each other.”

For their report, Domestic Violence During COVID-19, Piquero, and four co-authors, including Felicia Marie Knaul, director of the University’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, analyzed 18 academic studies that compared the number of domestic violence incidents before and after multiple jurisdictions began imposing stay-at-home restrictions last spring. The studies included six from overseas, specifically from Australia, Brazil, India, Italy, Sweden, and Mexico. 

From those studies—which relied on administrative data from police logs for domestic violence calls, crime and incident reports, domestic violence hotlines, and health records—the researchers confirmed what social workers, educators, police, and global humanitarians have been warning for months: that the pandemic’s isolation policies are exacerbating domestic violence. The researchers specifically found an average 7.9 percent increase in international domestic violence incidents and an average 8.1 percent spike in the U.S. 

But given that the researchers narrowed their analysis to academic studies that met specific criteria and were published in English, Piquero is certain that the increases are even far bigger than their report reflects. 

“There’s no doubt it is a lot worse than 8 percent. Just imagine all the stuff that we have no data on—the places where the machismo is so strong or where gender norms are so different,” he said. “And all we looked at is physical abuse. Imagine the emotional abuse that doesn’t get reported. Imagine the kids in those homes who witnessed the violence. There is a whole toll there that people haven’t talked about or studied.” 

Added Knaul, who co-chairs the Lancet Commission on Gender-Based Violence and Maltreatment of Young People, “Violence against women and children was a pandemic before COVID and will continue to be one after, unless we meet this public health crisis head on with policies, resources, and changes in attitudes and norms.” 

While the researchers found strong evidence of a spike, they said the dynamics driving the trend aren’t as clear. But they believe that lockdowns exacerbated the factors, including job loss, childcare stresses, and financial insecurity, typically associated with domestic violence. They also suggested that the use of alcohol and other substances as a coping strategy elevated the threat, as did isolation from friends, neighbors, teachers, and other people who ordinarily would report signs of abuse or intervene. 

Citing the report, Thomas Abt, director of the commission led by former Attorneys General Alberto Gonzales and Loretta Lynch, called on policymakers to provide additional resources for domestic abuse prevention and victim services—something Piquero said must happen before the next pandemic. 

“We need to make sure that the domestic violence shelters are ready for this. We need to make sure that police departments do welfare checks on prior victims, and we need to ensure people who need help can reach out—with apps that enable them to do so confidentially,” he said. “We also have to study what goes wrong during a lockdown, so we can prevent it the next time. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on so many people’s lives that we can see—with last week marking 500,000 deaths—but in so many other ways, we have just begun to scratch the surface.” 

In addition to Piquero and Knaul, the co-authors of the report included Wesley G. Jennings, chair and professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies at the University of Mississippi; Erin Jemison, manager at the Crime and Justice Institute; and Catherine (Katie) Kaukinen, chair and professor of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Florida.