Community-Based Response to Intimate Partner Violence During COVID-19 Pandemic (from Harvard Law Petrie Flom Center's Bill of Health)
Intimate partner violence has been called “a pandemic within the pandemic.”
A study of fourteen American cities found that the number of domestic violence calls to law enforcement rose 9.7% in March and April 2020, compared to the previous year. A hospital-based study spanning the same time period found significant increases in the number of people treated for injuries related to intimate partner violence. And a 2021 review of 18 studies relying on data from police, domestic violence hotlines, and health care providers found that reports of intimate partner violence increased 8% after lockdown orders were imposed.
Although almost half of people subjected to abuse never call the state for assistance, our responses to intimate partner violence are largely embedded within the state and rely heavily on law enforcement. A disproportionate amount of funding under the Violence Against Women Act — by one estimate, 85% — is directed to the criminal legal system. A growing number of activists skeptical of state intervention are arguing that responses beyond the carceral state are essential.
The pandemic showed that community-based supports, like pod mapping, mutual aid, and community accountability, originally developed by activists critical of law enforcement responses to violence, can foster safety and accountability without requiring state intervention. The pandemic could spur advocates seeking to distance themselves from state-based responses to expand their services.
Putting aside the question of exactly what increased — violence, or reporting of violence — there are several reasons why intimate partner violence might have risen during the pandemic. Some are fairly obvious: being forced to quarantine with an abusive partner, isolation from sources of support, and the stress of caring for children were widely cited as causes.
But advocates have called for increasing the focus on the other correlates of intimate partner violence that may be responsible. Economic stress, for example, is linked with the perpetration of intimate partner violence, and the pandemic has caused substantial economic stress, particularly for those who were already struggling. With workplaces shuttered, unemployment jumped in the early part of the pandemic. Low-wage workers experienced the most job loss.
One piece of evidence supporting the economic stress theory: intimate partner violence decreased temporarily in mid-April 2020, after the first stimulus checks were issued. Even as the economy has begun to rebound, significant numbers of adults are still reporting economic hardship — insufficient food, inability to pay for housing, and difficulty covering expenses — which is likely contributing to the continued elevation in reported violence.
Trauma may also be responsible. Trauma and the perpetration of intimate partner violence are correlated. Living under the existential threat of being infected with a life-threatening illness, actually contracting COVID-19, and experiencing the illness and death of loved ones are all sources of trauma that could be contributing to increases in violence.
The pandemic limited the options for addressing intimate partner violence. Calling a hotline or searching for information on the internet became exponentially more difficult when sharing space with abusive partners. Many shelters and service providers were shuttered for close to a year, if not longer. Providing off-site housing in hotels strained organizations’ already tight budgets. People feared contracting the virus if they sought medical attention from hospitals and medical centers, and treatment was not always available in emergency rooms overrun with COVID patients.
The pandemic also forced some people to reconsider calling law enforcement as a first response. With the virus rampant in jails and prisons, calling the police to stop violence became a much more complicated decision. For some, concerns about their partner’s well-being may have caused them to pause before dialing 911; for others, the knowledge that their partners could be exposed to COVID during the booking process and then bring the virus back to their homes — regardless of court orders requiring them to stay away from their victims — was a concern.
But the pandemic also fostered practices that could hold enormous promise for the way that we approach intimate partner violence in the “after times.” For too long, organizations have struggled with the question of what to do for people who wanted to maintain their relationships with their partners — who weren’t interested in leaving. Being forced to help people develop safety plans for sheltering in place could provide a new way of thinking about how to meet the needs of those who stay.
And, like COVID-19, the best way to prevent violence is to immunize against it. Focusing on prevention and attacking the correlates of violence — like unemployment, financial strain, and trauma — rather than relying on ineffective, after-the-fact law enforcement interventions, is the best way to stem the pandemic of violence.
How Representing Victims of Domestic Violence Turned Me Into a Prison Abolitionist
If you had told me 25 years ago that I would eventually call myself a prison abolitionist, I would have called you crazy.
In 1995, I was a brand-new lawyer representing victims of domestic violence. I was convinced that all people who used violence were monsters and that swift and harsh intervention by the criminal legal system was essential to stop that violence.
My clients quickly taught me to look at domestic violence in a much more nuanced way. They reminded me that they loved their partners, that they were co-parenting with their partners, that they didn’t always (or even often) benefit from the criminal legal system’s intervention.
The more I represented people subjected to abuse in court, the more I came to doubt how effective those interventions were.
In 2018, I published a book called Decriminalizing Domestic Violence (a title certain to prompt responses ranging from curiosity to distress to outrage). By then, I had amassed enough evidence to make a serious case that the criminal legal system wasn’t deterring or lowering rates of intimate partner violence. Instead, I found that it was exacerbating the conditions that led to intimate partner violence, and that it had serious unintended consequences for the people it was meant to benefit. I had studied how that system harmed different groups of people, particularly people of color, LGBTQIA individuals, the partners of police officers, and women who fought back against their abusive partners. I had thought about how the anti-violence movement’s choices about law and policy bolstered the system and how we could spend policy dollars differently.
And yet, when I got to the end of Decriminalizing Domestic Violence, I wavered. Although I argued that “[o]ne could make a credible, even strong, case for decriminalizing intimate partner violence,” I concluded that “complete decriminalization of intimate partner violence is unlikely, and probably unwise,” citing the lack of support for such a move, the role that criminalization continues to play for some people subjected to abuse, and the symbolic value
of the criminal law. I went on to offer reforms to the carceral system that I argued could make it more just and less likely to create the kind of trauma that spurs intimate partner violence when incarcerated people return to their communities and relationships.
Over the last two years, I’ve talked about this book hundreds of times. But the backdrop for that conversation has changed. The continued police killings of Black people have brought #DefundthePolice and abolitionism to the fore in ways that are different for those of us not previously steeped in it. Over those two years, I read. I learned from people like Angela Davis, Beth Richie, Mariame Kaba, and Andrea Ritchie, who have been doing abolitionist feminist work for decades, as well as from newer voices I encountered on Twitter and in other spaces. And I represented victims of violence imprisoned for acts related to their own abuse, which has profoundly changed my perspective.
I am proud of the book that I wrote. Its thesis—that the criminal legal system is not an effective response to intimate partner violence—is sound, and I believe deeply in the alternatives that I explore. But I would end the book very differently now. I would argue that the criminal legal system serves no useful purpose in addressing intimate partner violence. I would acknowledge that victims of violence continue to be invested in using that system—in part, because it is the only justice that we offer them. I would contend that justice can be so much more than retribution and suggest that we explore what justice really means to people subjected to abuse so that we can deliver the justice that they need. And I would conclude that whatever benefits one might argue result from criminal system intervention can be replicated and provided outside of that system, and that “reform” simply means allowing an unjust, ineffective, destructive system to continue to harm those it is meant to help.
Violence will never solve the problem of violence.
The question frequently asked in response to calls to defund the police is “what about gender-based violence?” Many people are recommending my book in response to that question, and I appreciate that. But I also know that the book has been disappointing for those who came to abolitionism before I did because at the very end, it fails to follow through on the argument it has been making all along.
I hate that one part of my book does not reflect my commitment to non-carceral solutions to intimate partner violence and to abolition more generally. But many, maybe most, of us didn’t start out as abolitionists. We have the capacity to change how we see this problem, and, more broadly, how we see the world. I’m excited about the conversations I’m having about the book now and hopeful that it can play a role in the change that is coming to our communities.