Domestic violence levels remained flat in Michigan during early pandemic, but abuse was worse
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, media reports warned of skyrocketing domestic violence.
While the overall prevalence of domestic violence in Michigan didn’t increase, survivors of intimate partner violence experienced new, more frequent or more severe violence during the early months of the pandemic, a University of Michigan study found.
U-M researchers surveyed 1,169 Michigan women and transgender/nonbinary individuals from June to August 2020 about changes in prevalence, severity and correlates to intimate partner violence.
Roughly 1 in 7 Michigan women and trans/nonbinary people experienced intimate partner violence—similar to pre-pandemic levels—but 1 in 10 experienced new, more frequent or more severe violence during that time period, said study co-author Sarah Peitzmeier, assistant professor at the U-M School of Nursing and School of Public Health.
Populations more likely to experience new, worse or more frequent intimate partner violence were those who were economically vulnerable or housing unstable; trans and nonbinary people; and those living with six or more in a household. Also, essential workers were twice as likely to experience new or worse violence, while one-third of pregnant women and one-fourth of households with toddlers experienced new or worse violence.
Also, people who tested for COVID were more likely to experience new or worse violence, and 86% of people who tested positive in the early weeks of the pandemic experienced new or more severe violence.
“There is clearly some interaction between this COVID pandemic and this pandemic of intimate partner violence,” Peitzmeier said.
The findings were shared in December 2020 with several state agencies and the governor’s office, as well as several universities and major hospitals across Michigan.
Peitzmeier and her research partner Lisa Fedina, assistant professor at the U-M School of Social Work, say the results appear consistent with the reports from media and domestic violence advocates.
“Maybe pre-pandemic, folks were experiencing a low level of abuse and weren’t needing to reach out to a hotline or seek services, but during the pandemic they experienced an increase in severity,” Peitzmeier said. “On the ground, service providers see an increased need, even if at the population level we don’t see an overall increase in numbers of people experiencing abuse. At the same time, the situation is getting worse for many survivors.”
If more people reported new violence, shouldn’t the overall prevalence increase? Not necessarily, because someone who was experiencing violence before could be experiencing violence from a new partner, she said.
And roughly 3% of respondents started experiencing violence during the pandemic, but 3% stopped experiencing it during the same period. Researchers aren’t sure why—it may be related to the cyclical nature of domestic abuse, or it may be that the abuser and victim don’t live together and during lockdown the abuser did not have access to the victim.
Peitzmeier said it is difficult to explain the nuances of the research, and some academics and domestic violence advocates think the findings either overemphasized or underemphasized the effect of domestic violence in the state.
“It’s important to look at these results and remember that even if the prevalence of women and trans people experiencing domestic violence did not increase, there are still 1 in 10 women and trans people who are seeing more severe or increased domestic abuse,” Peitzmeier said. “We have to focus on, ‘How do we help these people?'”
Peitzmeier suggested that policies such as eviction moratoria and rental and child care subsidies, partnering with prenatal and pediatric clinics and COVID testing sites to distribute information and referrals to domestic violence services could help.
Fedina said much can be done to help survivors, starting with believing and listening.
“We can donate our time, money or other resources to local organizations serving domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, recognizing that many domestic violence shelters and social service providers have faced budget cuts during the pandemic while the need for services has only increased,” she said.
“(Also), we need Congress to prioritize the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2021 to ensure survivors have access to stable housing and other critical economic supports. Contact your senators and urge them to support this vital bill that will protect survivors and save lives.”