We are learning the importance of social isolation to protect ourselves from the spread of the coronavirus. But as our nation shutters our schools, workplaces and more, we should be mindful that both isolation and the economic impact of our rapidly slowing economy are most likely causing an increase in domestic violence and child abuse. And we need to be vigilant to help stop that.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of both child abuse and domestic violence increase based on the precise factors that are now defining the societal impact of coronavirus for so many households.
Economic stress and unemployment, isolation from others, and lack of social supports all contribute to higher rates of child abuse and domestic violence.
Also contributing to the risk are low self-esteem, depression and anger experienced by perpetrators, all of which can go hand-in-hand with loss of income, jobs and social ties.
Isolation at home can empower abusers and domestic violence perpetrators. We know that abusers try to control their victims through isolation and disruption of supportive relationships, which is easier than ever for them to do. Simultaneously, they can exert control over basic necessities like cleaning supplies and food. They can effectively threaten their victims against escaping to homes of friends and family, or hospitals or domestic violence shelters over fear of contracting coronavirus.
Simultaneously, the primary measures that combat ongoing child abuse and domestic violence are severely diminished at this time. Community visibility of children is among the most effective means to detect and stop child abuse. School teachers and other school employees make the majority of abuse hotline calls. Those calls tend to dip sharply when fewer children are in school in summer months and not visible to responsible adults at school. We are already seeing the impact across the country as calls to state hotlines for child abuse have plummeted in recent weeks, by as much as 70 percent in some areas. With Florida schools now closed for a protracted period of time, it will be a very long summer for many abused children whose teachers are no longer present to see signs of abuse, like bruises, withdrawal and other behavior changes.
Even adult victims of domestic violence can find isolation at home with an abuser to be even more dangerous than ever, as many will not be able to find a safe place in a home to call for help without being overheard by an abuser.
We also cannot rule out the risk of children and intimate partners being abused and subjected to violence for the first time in homes that have never before found themselves suffering the stress of economic peril while simultaneously managing the challenge of caring for young children all day, every day. The lack of support for parents during these times from friends, extended family, religious organizations and other community supports can leave profound holes in the safety net that in better times keep families on an even keel and safe.
Being mindful of these circumstances, there is much we can and should do. Regular communication is key. Now is the time for family and friends of those at increased risk to stay in touch daily by telephone and text messages, ideally with video-chatting programs to best judge demeanor and mood.
Communities of faith can organize to reach out to fellow members while our houses of worship are closed. All involved should not hesitate to ask specific questions about how the stresses and hardships of this time are being handled in a home and whether there is a breakdown in safety in any way. Without specific questions, a victim may be afraid to volunteer the information. Having the courage to ask sends a message that you truly care and will seek help if needed.
Know and communicate too that while much of society’s institutions are closed, resources for essential safety needs remain open. Law enforcement and 911 operators are still on the job. While our courthouses are largely closed, the courts remain open to those seeking injunctions against abuse and domestic violence. Likewise, “stay at home” orders issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis specifically allows leaving home to seek help from law enforcement and shelters or other social service providers to escape domestic violence.
Other resources are available on smart phones or with other internet connections 24/7. In addition to 911, Florida’s abuse hotline can be reached at 1-800-96ABUSE (2-2873) or on the Internet at https://reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us. The national domestic violence hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY. If a call cannot be made, one can log onto the site at thehotline.org or a text message for help reading “LOVEIS” can be sent to 22522. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-4673 and Childhelp, the National Child Abuse Hotline, is 1-800-422-4453. If there is any doubt, make the call for yourself or someone who might be in need.
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