Pandemic fuels domestic violence and makes aiding victims more challenging

February 1, 2021



Domestic violence calls to police and crisis hotlines have risen during the pandemic, but it is impossible to know the full impact of shelter-at-home orders and social distancing on victims who can't escape dangerous situations, said Veronica Zietz, director of Catholic Health Initiatives' North Dakota Violence Prevention Program.

"The pandemic has caused serious economic devastation and has disconnected people from resources and support,'' Zietz said. "It has also created anxiety, stress and uncertainty. These risk factors can spark domestic violence in families where it wasn't previously present and fuel violence in families that have a history of abuse.''

The Council on Criminal Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit, found that domestic violence calls to police increased by 7.5% during March, April and May in 14 U.S. cities that had issued social distancing and shelter-in-place orders.

A clay sculpture modeled by a participant in a healthy relationship workshop for mothers of Head Start children. The women were asked to depict unhealthy and healthy relationships.

In North Dakota, some crisis hotlines are reporting a 30% increase in calls, Zietz said.

Educating professionals and at-risk people about domestic violence has never been more important — or challenging. Professional training is now online, but as COVID-19 cases spiked in North Dakota, many health care providers have been too busy caring for COVID-19 patients to participate, Zietz said.

"And we may not be reaching those who are most vulnerable because they're living with their abuser and not allowed access to a computer,'' she said. "Or they're worried about their safety if an abusive partner finds out they're participating in a class or trying to reach out for help."

A crisis situation made more dire
Even in normal times, incidents of intimate partner violence occur at an alarming rate in the United States. One in three women and one in four men have at some point experienced rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The North Dakota Violence Prevention Program partnered with a domestic violence shelter in Lisbon on a citywide public art project to raise awareness. Each pair of shoes represents a victim of domestic violence in the community.

In 2019, 6,330 incidents of domestic violence were reported to North Dakota crisis intervention centers, according to the state's Council on Abused Women's Services. Ninety percent of victims were women; 24% were under the age of 25. At least 4,999 children were directly impacted.

CHI St. Alexius Health started the North Dakota Violence Prevention Program in 2015 in response to rising cases of domestic violence in the state. The program serves eight communities in central and western North Dakota. The program is based in Bismarck.

While intimate partner violence is a problem everywhere, it can often go unreported in rural communities where there is a lack of services and resources, Zietz said. The victim has no place to go.

Safe place
"People are sometimes shocked by the statistics,'' Zietz said. "I've had health professionals come up to me after a presentation and say, 'I never really thought about how I would respond if somebody said they weren't safe at home.'"

In FY 2020, which ended on June 30, the program's community outreach leaders held 26 workshops attended by 461 professionals working in health care, ambulance services, social services and education, along with college students entering related professions. Most of those trainings were held in person before the COVID-19 outbreak forced the switch to virtual workshops. The program's community outreach workshops have trained 3,209 professionals since 2016.

"Basically, we are a 'train the trainer' program,'' Zietz said. "We work with local people to be our boots on the ground. We train them, and then they share with others in their community.''

The program also taps into existing community networks, including churches.

"One of our trainers provided a community outreach workshop to her local ministerial association,'' Zietz said. "A pastor was so moved she dedicated her Sunday service to intimate partner violence so that everyone could learn how to get help — and know that her church was a safe place for people experiencing violence.''

Focusing on healthy relationships
Key to curbing future violence is teaching people, especially young people, about healthy relationships, said Jeannie Nasers, a social worker who serves as a trainer for the program.

"They are at such a vulnerable time in their life, but they also are so receptive, and hopefully they can receive the information before they end up in a harmful relationship,'' Nasers said.

Healthy relationship workshops can be tailored to the participants, whether they are students, church and community groups, at-risk clients in domestic violence shelters or men and women in the correctional system, she said.

Nasers recalled a memorable experience while teaching inmates at a correctional facility who had volunteered for the training.

"I could tell when I was giving them the information that it was brand new to them,'' she said. "No one had ever talked to them about healthy relationships and the appropriate way to communicate with a partner.''

People who have attended the workshops frequently describe them as eye-opening.

"I knew I was in a relationship that was abusive but did not realize that it was that bad,'' wrote one participant. "The things I thought were nothing, weren't nothing."

Pandemic workarounds
Although virtual sessions might be the only option during a pandemic, Zietz has found them less effective for non-professional participants than in-person training.

"One of the benefits of this programming is that it builds connections and support,'' she said. "I don't think this happens in the same way virtually.''

The pandemic has prompted creative thinking for reaching people. The program has partnered with hospitals to share social media messages about resources and ways to manage stress. And it has worked with a food pantry to distribute treat kits for kids that include information on domestic violence.

"We always have to be very careful so that victims aren't jeopardizing themselves by bringing the information into their homes," Zietz said. "But if it's in pamphlets that come with your pick-up from the food pantry, it's not singling somebody out.''

The CHI Mission and Ministry Fund supports the program as part of the United Against Violence campaign, which was launched systemwide in 2008.


Since CHI and Dignity Health came together in the 2019 merger that created CommonSpirit Health, the two organizations have continued their commitment to addressing violence as a public health crisis, said Laura Krausa, system director of advocacy programs at CommonSpirit. The missions of CHI's violence prevention initiative and Dignity Health's human trafficking response program are now aligned under CommonSpirit's Violence and Human Trafficking Prevention and Response Program.

A strength of the North Dakota program is that it is community-based and takes a holistic approach to preventing violence that could be replicated elsewhere, Krausa said.

"We don't always have to recreate the wheel," she said. "It's going to look different in every community, but the framework and expertise can be leveraged well.''

Copyright © 2021 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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