Finding Policy Responses to Rising Intimate Partner Violence during the Coronavirus Outbreak


Across the country, shelter at home orders and social distancing have helped slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak in many communities. These measures, while helping to flatten the curve, also pose significant risk for those impacted by domestic or intimate partner violence (IPV). Under quarantines, household members, caregivers, and intimate partners are in close contact with one another, often unable to leave if a violent situation arises or escalates.

IPV during Emergencies

Nearly a third of all Americans experience IPV, used interchangeably with domestic violence (DV), within their lifetimes. IPV is defined as sexual violence, stalking, physical violence, and psychological aggression perpetrated by an intimate partner. Although IPV occurs across all demographics, some groups, such as women of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ individuals, and pregnant women experience IPV at much higher rates. In addition to the risks associated with physical proximity caused by staying home, the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic could compound risk for IPV, particularly for women. Loss of jobs and income can exacerbate stress, risk of experiencing violence, or may make some people more financially dependent on an abusive partner.

While there is limited national data on the impact of the outbreak on IPV rates in the US during this time, some localized data is emerging. Examples in the US include Wilmington, North Carolina, where the DV shelter reported a 116% increase in calls from this same time last year, and Oregon, where calls to DV services have reportedly doubled since the emergency began. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has received calls and digital chats about abusive partners using COVID-19 as a scare tactic, such as preventing them from leaving the house or keeping them from seeking medical attention. A study of Los Angeles and Indianapolis police calls found an increase in DV calls, while calls for other crimes, such as burglary, decreased. The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) reports hearing from state coalitions that chat and other digital services requests are up, while shelter requests are down.1 Understanding the full toll of the pandemic on IPV may take years, as cases of IPV are known to be undercounted and collecting data during a crisis can be more challenging.

DV service organizations are looking to research on IPV during and after natural disasters in developing guidance during this public health emergency. Natural disasters, similar to a public health crisis like COVID-19, involve threats to life and loss of loved ones, interruption of social systems and services, and a lack of socialization – all which have been linked to an increase in interpersonal violence against women and girls. Evidence suggests that requests for IPV services (particularly shelter) rise after the initial emergency of natural disasters have subsided.2 However, this will be challenging as it is estimated that there were more than 11,336 unmet requests per day for housing and emergency shelter from survivors of IPV last year, before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Policy Options to Support IPV Providers and Survivors

At the federal level, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), originally enacted more than 25 years ago, has been a foundational source of funding for resources and community responses to sexual and domestic violence. VAWA expired in 2018, and given the higher risk of IPV resulting from the pandemic, many have renewed the call for its reauthorization, which would ensure these funds continue to be available to address the fallout of the pandemic, particularly for shelters and hotlines. While some VAWA programs have been reappropriated and continue to be funded at their usual level, there are other policies and programs that consider the needs of IPV survivors and support organizations during COVID-19 including:

  • The CARES Act – The CARES Act includes some measures for addressing IPV, such as a moratorium on evictions for those in a covered housing program under VAWA. The act also builds on the existing Family Violence and Prevention Services Act (FVPSA) and provides $2 million for the National DV Hotline and awards $45 million to FVPSA formula grants, including for prevention efforts among Indian tribes and state DV coalitions.
  • The HEROES Act – The fourth proposed federal pandemic relief legislation, the HEROES Act, currently proposes to add $100 million for VAWA programs, such as transitional housing, which is expected to rise in demand as communities begin reopening. FVPSA programs would get an additional $50 million, $2 million of which will go to the National DV hotline. It would also authorize up to $100 million to community-based organizations to assist low-income women and survivors of domestic violence to protect their financial assets in the event of divorce from an abusive spouse. While the bill has passed the House, it is expected to be revised substantially if the Senate takes it up.
  • Telehealth and confidential mental health care – Many IPV programs provide mental health therapy and counseling by licensed practitioners by phone, over chat, or in person. Currently, many programs are looking to expand phone and digital communication abilities. While CMS has temporarily eased telehealth restrictions under HIPAA for some providers during the pandemic, clinicians who serve people affected by IPV must abide by stricter confidentiality laws. In particular, mental health clinicians that practice through DV response services cannot provide care over FaceTime or Skype, which have been approved by CMS for other telehealth services. Abusive partners can use technology to track and monitor those affected by IPV, making confidentiality particularly important for support services. Although each DV program must consider federal and state confidentiality laws, there are some platforms they can use to communicate with survivors.
  • Employer-based paid safe leave – Paid safe days allow people time off work to address issues stemming from sexual or domestic violence, such as physical recovery or obtaining legal or medical services, without losing pay. This can help protect job and financial security for those experiencing IPV. While there is no federal requirement for paid safe days, it has been proposed in federal legislation and is required by some state sick leave policies, typically as a component of an employer’s broader sick leave benefit.

Looking Forward

Some policymakers and DV providers are calling for increased support for IPV response services to help bridge gaps that already existed and address the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic. Emerging evidence and prior research shows that the pandemic and the economic fallout will place more people at risk for IPV. For them, the larger question is what the response of policymakers will be in the face of many competing community needs in the wake of the pandemic.

  1. KFF private communication with the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV)

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  2. Ibid.

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