While people all over the world battle the COVID-19 pandemic, other dangers follow in its wake. (Haileigh Steffen)
While people all over the world battle the COVID-19 pandemic, other dangers follow in its wake.

Haileigh Steffen

The Shadow Pandemic

October 22, 2020

Trigger warning: domestic abuse

An alarming secondary crisis lurks behind the COVID-19 pandemic most of us are familiar with. The so-called “shadow pandemic” refers to the increase in domestic abuse cases. The shadow pandemic, though not as prominent in the public consciousness as COVID-19, is also a dangerous public health crisis.

“An increase in [domestic abuse] cases was of the biggest fears we had because we knew as things started to shut down, survivors were going to be in very dangerous positions, and situations they weren’t accustomed to,” Lindsay Pingel, Director of Community Engagement at the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV), said.

Last year alone, the ICADV served over 40,000 people across the state of Iowa. Though cases of domestic violence continue to rise as the pandemic persists, the numbers didn’t spike immediately. When shelter in place orders were first established, the surge of domestic abuse cases slowed. When people are forced to shelter with their abuser, it’s often hard to find safety to reach out for help.

“The tricky part to understand is that when we went into lockdown, it got quiet. There were not as many people calling the hotline because not many people were able to. When you’re sheltering with your abuser, there’s no room to make a safe phone call or reach out,” Alta Medea-Peters, who works in the community engagement department of the Domestic Violence Intervention Program, said.

The Domestic Violence Intervention Program is a nonprofit organization that serves victims of domestic violence and intimate partner violence. DVIP serves men, women, and children in eight counties throughout Southeast Iowa. They help victims of domestic abuse find the safety and resources they need. Since the state of Iowa began to lift restrictions, DVIP has seen a 28% increase in hotline calls.

“It wasn’t surprising that we weren’t getting as many calls during that period of time, everything was shut down. People have to be strategic,” Delaney Dixon, Assistant Executive Director of DVIP, said. “Statistically you’re in more danger when you’re trying to leave a harmful situation. People have to think ‘is this the right time for me?’ it’s not just ‘okay, I’m gonna go.’ They have to find that opportunity, because the reality is, they may only get one shot.”

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s COVID-19 report, there have been over 6,000 contacts made to the domestic abuse hotlines, referencing COVID-19.

“Our services are free and confidential. We do not charge. We are completely inclusive, safety and sobriety do not go hand in hand. Everything we do is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If it’s easier to make a call to us at three in the morning, we will answer just like we would at three in the afternoon,” Medea Peters said. “If you are unsure [about reaching out] or do not want people to find out, you can call the hotline number and get advice and safety planning, and talk with an advocate about your situation or a friend’s situation. You don’t have to be the primary victim to call.”

Many forget how important independence is with survivors of domestic abuse. With jobs being shut down, and employees fired, it limits the available resources. For many people, going to work every day is taken for granted, while for those trapped in abusive circumstances, a job can represent temporary safety and freedom. Without financial independence, public interaction, and populated areas, survivors are left without any safe spaces, though they may only be momentary.

“Somebody may have left their abuser, and they were taking care of themselves [and] their child, but then they lost their job. That is the perfect opportunity for an abuser to swoop in and say ‘I will take care of it’. A victim may not have a choice, because they can’t support themselves financially,” Dixon said.

On average, more than one in three women and one in four men in the United States will experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

“Everyday matters in terms of being able to financially support yourself. Abusers use money to keep their victims saddled to them. If you don’t have a job, you can’t get an apartment. If you don’t have a car, you can’t get a job. If you get fired, you’re out of luck. You have to have those things in order to be independent. COVID-19 has been a co-conspirator for abusers,” Dixon added.

Public exposure often acts as a safety shield from domestic abuse. Abusers won’t usually operate in public, in fear of being seen. Away from the public, victims have far less protection. Even a brief conversation with a neighbor can provide a connection to the outside world, which represents some measure of safety. In quarantine and self-isolation, interactions even with neighbors aren’t possible in some cases.

“Sometimes one of the best things victims can do is to be in public because it keeps their abuser from attacking. Now nobody is seeing each other. There is much less opportunity to be protected by the public eye,” Dixon said.

While domestic abuse hotlines are seeing an increase in calls, community-based programs have had to adjust their physical shelters to comply with COVID-19 protocol. The shelters in Iowa never ceased services but worked to provide protection in a safe environment.

“Our shelters never closed down. We have through our network, eight brick and mortar buildings across the state that we utilize. We kept those open for the most vulnerable of survivors who had nowhere else to go or needed an extended stay. We also made sure to set up protocol to keep people safe,” Pingel said.

The state of Iowa is fortunate to have the resources and connections already in place to relocate people to transitional housing, or extended-stay hotels, due to COVID-19 restrictions, and recommended social distancing procedures.

“Even though our ability to shelter them is diminished in ways that it hadn’t been before, we use hotels more frequently now which means there’s an increased cost, but COVID has brought a whole new set of challenges for finding resources and keeping people safe,” Medea-Peters said.

Iowa is unique in its system of advocacy. The ICADV has advocates in all 99 counties in Iowa, whose approach is to meet survivors wherever they are located, instead of survivors coming to them. Survivors outline what safety looks like for them, and the focus is to support and help them in any way possible.

“If a pandemic like this one had to hit, our state was prepared for it, just because of the advocacy work that we do every single day,” Pingel said.

A large part of initiating systemic change is education. While people are stuck at home, the strategy of universal education is crucial. Assuming many people are experiencing violence in some form, is important when providing information to the public. Brigid McCaw is trained as an internal medicine doctor, who worked at Kaiser Permanente in California for a significant period of her career. McCaw led the work to revolutionize how domestic violence is addressed in medical clinics.

“You have to think [like] a doctor. How are you going to make [help] possible for someone who’s stuck at home? Maybe with the abuser there. Maybe with the person listening to the phone calls. How do you navigate that in a sensitive, safe and helpful way,” McCaw said.

While people around the world are struggling with challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the invisibility of the shadow pandemic makes assistance to victims of domestic abuse especially complicated.

“As much as we’re all struggling, we’re starting to normalize that struggle. We can’t forget that this is hard. You don’t have to be alone. Just because everything is upside down, it doesn’t mean we’re not here to help,” Dixon said.

If you or any of your friends or family are experiencing any form of domestic abuse or intimate partner violence, contact the Iowa Victim Service Call Center at 1-800-770-1650 or text “IowaHelp” to 20121. The DVIP confidential hotline is also available 24/7 at 800-373-1043.

1 Comment

One Response to “The Shadow Pandemic”

  1. Kristie Fortmann-Doser on November 2nd, 2020 2:14 pm

    Outstanding article!

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