Severity of domestic violence incidents increased during pandemic, experts say

"Maybe pre-pandemic, folks were experiencing a low level of abuse and weren't needing to reach out to a hotline or seek services, but during the pandemic they experienced an increase in severity," researchers said

By Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

DETROIT — A study by researchers at the University of Michigan from the early months of the pandemic found incidents of violence among domestic partners did not increase overall, but the nature of the attacks in some cases was more severe.

But advocates with Metro Detroit organizations that offer services to victims of domestic violence said they are seeing more requests for help and believe incidents may be on the rise as many experts feared when the pandemic began in Michigan in March of 2020.

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The UM researchers studied 1,169 Michigan women and transgender/nonbinary residents from June to August 2020.

About 1 in 7 women in Michigan and trans/nonbinary individuals had experienced domestic violence, similar to the numbers of incidents before the pandemic, the study found. But 1 in 10 experienced new incidents which were more frequent and more severe violence, according to Sarah Peitzmeier, assistant professor at the UM School of Nursing and School of Public Health and the study's co-author.

People who were experiencing financial hardships or having problems finding housing were more likely to experience new, worse or more frequent intimate partner violence, the study found. Transgender and nonbinary people as well as those living with six or more people in a household were also more likely to experience more severe domestic violence.

Additionally, the study found that essential workers were twice as likely to experience new or worsening violence, while one-third of pregnant women and a quarter of households with toddlers experienced new or worsening violence. And 86% of people who tested positive for COVID in the early weeks of the pandemic experienced new or more severe violence.

"There is clearly some interaction between this COVID pandemic and this pandemic of intimate partner violence," Peitzmeier said.

Peitzmeier and her research partner, Lisa Fedina, assistant professor at the UM School of Social Work, say the results are consistent with media reports and those reported from domestic violence advocates.

"Maybe pre-pandemic, folks were experiencing a low level of abuse and weren't needing to reach out to a hotline or seek services, but during the pandemic they experienced an increase in severity," Peitzmeier said. "On the ground, service providers see an increased need, even if at the population level we don't see an overall increase in numbers of people experiencing abuse. At the same time, the situation is getting worse for many survivors."

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It is difficult to explain some of the "nuances" of the research, said Peitzmeier, and some scholars and domestic violence advocates think the study's findings overemphasized or underemphasized the effect of domestic violence in the state.

Peitzmeier added that policies addressing evictions, rental and child care subsidies as well as partnerships with prenatal and pediatric clinics and COVID testing could help the problem.

"It's important to look at these results and remember that even if the prevalence of women and trans people experiencing domestic violence did not increase, there are still 1 in 10 women and trans people who are seeing more severe or increased domestic abuse," Peitzmeier said. "We have to focus on, 'How do we help these people?'"

The study's findings were shared in December 2020 with several Michigan agencies and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office, as well as several universities and major hospitals across the state.

There were 64,778 incidents of domestic violence reported in 2020, according to the Michigan State Police. Women were the targets in 72% of the incidents, with 46,554 reports, while 18,155 men reported being abused.

That compares with 57,018 victims across the state in 2019, according to the 2019 Michigan Incident Crime Report.

Emily Matuszczak, program director for HAVEN, an Oakland County agency that provides shelter, counseling, advocacy and educational programming to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, said the nonprofit has seen an increase in demand for services.

"HAVEN has seen an increase in requests for all of our supportive services from safe shelter to counseling throughout the pandemic," said Matuszczak.

"Facing a global pandemic has caused increased stress and tension in individuals across the globe. This has led to an increase in intimate partner violence," said Matuszczak. "Calls to our crisis line increased in both 2020 and 2021. When you need to shelter at home to stay safe, home needs to be a safe place."

Miss Cindy, the executive director of the Women In Touch, which runs a domestic violence hotline and helps place victims in shelters, said she believes the number of domestic violence incidents is on the rise.

"We're getting over 40 calls a month," said Cindy, whose last name is not being released out of fear for her safety. "Some days we get calls back to back."

Cindy says she is a domestic violence survivor and says her "turning point" to leave an abusive marriage was when her young son asked her why she had gotten "a whipping" from his father.

Cindy said the abuse since the pandemic appears "much more" extreme and that it's not unusual for a domestic violence victim to call her in the middle of an attack.

Cindy said stress brought on by the pandemic is evident, and said some women have been stuck in domestic violence situations because they don't have the resources to leave.

"The biggest problem is that there are more animal shelters than there are (shelters) for women," said Cindy whose organizations help place women with domestic violence shelters.

(c)2022 The Detroit News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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