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Lockdowns and social distancing give domestic abusers cover | COMMENTARY

Women work at a domestic violence hotline in Chicago, March 20, 2020. President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package inclludes tens of millions of dollars for organizations dedicated to curtailing domestic abuse, which skyrocketed during the pandemic.
Women work at a domestic violence hotline in Chicago, March 20, 2020. President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package inclludes tens of millions of dollars for organizations dedicated to curtailing domestic abuse, which skyrocketed during the pandemic. (David Kasnic/The New York Times)

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of us in varied and sometimes painful ways. For many, the pandemic has caused economic stress and physical isolation. Both of these factors make it incredibly difficult to identify and address domestic violence in our community; they have also made seeking help much more challenging.

A recent study found that domestic violence cases rose 8.1% nationally after lockdown orders were issued last year. And, according to recent data from the Baltimore Police Department, domestic aggravated assaults have risen 35% year over year in the city. Cases are rising in our nation and here in Baltimore, and we all must continue our work to protect ourselves and our communities from this illness.

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Domestic violence is a significant, multi-faceted public health problem with a wide range of health consequences. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, nearly three-quarters of all victims first experience intimate partner violence before the age of 25, with an estimated 11.6 million women experiencing their first victimization between the ages 11 and 17.

Around half of all non-Hispanic Black, American Indian/Alaska Native women, and multi-racial women have experienced intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. While women of all economic backgrounds can and do experience intimate partner violence, a growing body of research ties increased financial stress with an increase in victimization. The LGBTQ+ community is also particularly underserved in this environment.

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Isolation, more time at home, and lack of stable support structures have caused a marked increase in unsafe home environments, and in many cases, fewer opportunities for intervention. In-person health care visits, critical in early detection and improving outcomes, are less frequent right now.

Exacerbating the problem is that given the pandemic restrictions, it may be more challenging for victims to travel to safe havens. Additionally, as people are confined at home with their abusers, they may not have a safe moment to reach out for help, and they may be confused as to what services remain available.

The hallmark of domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling behavior that may be physical, emotional and economic. It is important to remember that both men and women can be victims of domestic violence. There are many forms of aggressive behavior that we see in abusive relationships, such as stalking, harassment, and physical violence. Intimate partner violence refers to abuse, specifically within an intimate relationship.

At Kaiser Permanente, our physicians are trained to screen for domestic violence and connect members to lifesaving resources. Not only do we work to identify domestic violence, but we also provide trauma-informed care, access to mental health and addiction services, and address the role of social determinants of health.

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Here are some signs to watch for if you have concerns about a loved one or friend suffering from domestic violence:

  • Showing fear around a partner or fearing a partner’s reaction to bad news or a difficult situation;
  • Isolation from family and friends;
  • Frequent canceling of plans at the last minute, especially if out of character;
  • Unexplained injuries or explanations that don’t add up;
  • A partner who exerts control over finances, social life or appearance;
  • A partner who calls or texts excessively, exhibiting a need to be in constant contact;
  • A partner who displays extreme jealousy or emotional abuse in front of others, including yelling or insulting.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demanded so much of health care workers already. But the pandemic has called on us to step up once again for our communities and revisit screening protocols, develop additional training and provide immediate access to on-site or off-site support services in response to the uptick in cases of domestic violence. Everyone can and must be an ally to individuals experiencing domestic violence, especially during this pandemic. Only together can we end domestic violence in our community.

If you need help or a loved one does, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233) or visit https://www.thehotline.org. This nationwide database has detailed information on domestic violence shelters, other emergency shelters, legal support and assistance programs, and social service programs.

Dr. Ada Emarievbe (ada.u.emarievbe@kp.orgis an OB-GYN with Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medicine; she practices at Kaiser Permanente in Columbia, Maryland

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