The Pandemic’s Lethal Effect on Domestic Violence

MindBuck Media
11 min readApr 16, 2020

A conversation with Dr. Karyne Messina, Prof. Joan Meier and Attorney John Moot

creepy looking house under storm clouds
Photo by Markus Bürkle

John: We have two renowned experts in the field of psychotherapy and the law to discuss the troubling effects of the current pandemic on domestic violence. We’d like to cover three main issues today: (i) the key triggers of domestic violence that are exacerbated by the pandemic, (ii) the government’s challenges in supporting the victims, and (iii) recommendations.

Let’s start with the first issue: why the pandemic increases the incidence and severity of domestic violence. Several factors are well known — couples being confined to their homes, women’s reduced ability to reach out for help, and the increase in abuse given the stresses imposed by the pandemic — but I’d like our experts to weigh in in more detail.

Karyne: I think COVID-19 is the greatest challenge women have faced in this country since the women’s movement in the late 60’s and 70’s began to raise awareness of violence against women. In spite of many “bumps in the road” along the way, we seemed to be moving forward until a partisan Congress last year failed to fund the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This failure, along with President’s Trump’s denigrating attitude towards women, started to cause progress to stall.

Now, we are moving backwards due to the confinement of women who are forced to stay at home with their abusers and have reportedly been threatened in a new way. Abusive men are now bullying women by saying they will kick them out of their homes if they don’t comply with their wishes.

Previously, women could go to family members and/or friends for support, or they could go to shelters to escape abuse. Now they are captives in horrendous environments. There is no escape from the agony of abuse for many women and most likely in many cases for their children. They are stuck with men who are able to do what they want to do to them because the resources that had previously been available are no longer at their disposal.

It is a dreadful situation, similar to a kidnaping in many ways. Due to the severity of the situation, women desperately need help since they have few resources at their disposal. It is a global tragedy that we will only begin to understand once the coronavirus crisis is under control. However, even after the need for immediate confinement changes, I think women will suffer for quite some time. I believe this is the case because once beaten down, it’s hard to get up, especially when abusers are still present in the lives of victims of domestic violence.

Part of the reason men are getting away with this is a little-known defense mechanism allows them to project unwanted aspects of themselves that they cannot tolerate onto women who they then blame. As an example, if a man drinks too much and knows it, rather than taking responsibility for his problem, he may accuse his wife or girlfriend of being an alcoholic, which then, in his mind, gives him the right to beat her up for being drunk. In that way, she is the guilty one and he doesn’t have to deal with his drinking problem.

This is a pervasive problem in many domestic violence situations. The maneuver itself is called “projective identification,” meaning an idea is projected onto someone and then the person who casts off the unwanted trait or, in this case, label — alcoholism — begins to identify with it as something that exists in the other person. It’s like saying something that isn’t accurate about someone and then “deciding” it is true.

In an attempt to bring this dynamic to light, I have started calling it ‘blame shifting’ to help people recognize one major process that comes into play when men abuse women. To make matters worse, while women are frequently stunned by many of the unfounded “offenses” for which they are accused, they often eventually begin to believe that they are guilty for what their abusers claim “made them do it.” Awareness of this problem could help women realize they aren’t at fault for the things men accuse them of doing.

This concept is somewhat similar to DARVO (“deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender”), a construct developed by Dr. Jennifer Freyd that is aimed at showing onlookers how abusers twist the facts to deflect attention onto the victims. More information can be found here.

Joan: As a longstanding domestic violence lawyer, and like with many other vulnerable groups in society, I see COVID-19 as absolutely exacerbating women’s exposure to abuse and ripping apart the already fragile network of supporters. Women who were trying to come to terms with an abusive relationship, figure out how they could leave and keep their children safe, how they could support their family without the abuser, and all the myriad other challenges that face women when they try to end abuse, can often no longer proceed with any of those avenues. Even domestic violence shelters are having to severely limit how many people they accept — and shelter spaces are inadequate in the best of times. Jobs are utterly unavailable, especially for those who have not been in the job market recently, so leaving a marriage is that much more unattainable. And, of course, families cannot go stay with friends or extended family right now.

So, as Karyne states, women and children are like sitting ducks in homes with explosive and/or controlling, violent men. Moreover, and of no small consequence, abusers are not abusive 24/7 — usually. But when they are more highly stressed, their egos are threatened (e.g., because of a layoff), and their usual methods of blowing off steam are not available, they can be expected to be that much more abusive, that much more of the time. Moreover, something few people understand is how calculating many abusers can be about when and how to hurt their partner. They know now that she cannot get help, cannot go anywhere, has no resources, etc., and so they know they are free to abuse more and worse than they ever have been. Their mere knowledge of women’s and children’s lack of escape is a very dangerous thing in and of itself.

John: That is well said by both of you, but absolutely heart-wrenching. Given this dire situation, what are the challenges faced by the government in responding — such as through the legal system (e.g., issuing restraining orders, arrests, etc.) and the larger social safety net (e.g., advocacy organizations, shelters, etc.)? Joan, please start us off by sharing your thoughts.

Joan: I’ve seen several severe problems emerging with regard to the ongoing need for legal responses to domestic violence. First, of course, is the significant increase in rates and severity of abuse that have been reported in some countries and some areas of the U.S. (and even these increases tend to understate the problem because of the limited ability of women to reach out for help). Normally, this would mean the courts would be receiving far more petitions for protection orders. However, most courts are closed to varying degrees. Some courts have maintained in-person proceedings for protection orders, but of course this puts everyone at risk from the corona virus. Other courts are limiting access to remote filings and telephonic hearings, but this makes it harder for judges to assess credibility and determine risk. Others are limiting the availability of protective orders to life-threatening situations, however they can determine that online. The bottom line is that protection orders are far harder to get now — although, as one glimmer of hope, in D.C. the court automatically extended all orders that were already in place when the quarantine began.

The second and equally worrisome challenge concerns child custody. The problems here take many forms. Many abuse survivors are under court orders requiring them to share custody or at least visitation with abusive ex-husbands, due to family courts’ enormous priority on shared parenting. In this environment, abusive ex-husbands now have new tools to abuse, including refusing to observe social distancing, not protecting the children with social distancing, and sending exposed children back to their mothers’ homes, some of whom have vulnerabilities such as asthma, or other children with vulnerabilities putting them in high-risk categories. A responsible, decent ex-spouse will try not to expose his child’s other parent to life-threatening risk. An abusive ex-husband, however, might, or may just resist anyone “telling him what to do.”

In addition, some fathers are already petitioning courts successfully to cut off mothers from their children because the mothers are health workers. While I’ve heard of at least one mother who tried to do the same, she failed. The fathers I’m hearing about are succeeding. We do not yet know how many of these petitioning parents are former abusers. My guess is that courts’ responses to the corona virus are going to mirror their responses to custody and abuse cases generally. As my recent national study demonstrates, these responses have been gender-biased against mothers who seek to protect their children from abusive fathers. Now, the coronavirus is giving abusive fathers a new and powerful way to take the children from their mothers — the common threat of abusers when they lose control of their adult victims. Courts cannot be counted on to resist this.

Karyne: In addition to all the problems identified by Joan, it is disheartening, to say the least, that, as far as the current administration goes, domestic violence does not appear to be on the radar screen. In daily briefings from the White House, there is seldom or ever any discussion about this topic.

As a matter of fact, when asked about the effect of the pandemic on domestic violence, President Trump recently thought a reporter was asking about “Mexican” violence — an unlikely question in the midst of a world health crisis. The actual response from the president is quite telling. What the reporter said was, “Police are reporting a record number of calls about domestic violence.” President Trump responded by asking, if the reporter meant “Mexican violence?” When the reporter repeated his question, again clearly calling it, “DOMESTIC VIOLENCE,” the president said, “As you know, we’re building the wall.”

That exchange says it all: Donald Trump appears blind to the existence of domestic violence, let alone its increase due to mandatory confinement. This is a major problem for women in the U.S. since first responders and other law enforcement officials are preoccupied with other issues.

John: The challenges you each identify appear daunting. What about recommendations to at least alleviate some of the harm? Let’s turn to those — both for the government and individual victims. Karyne, please start us off.

Karyne: Most governments are mandating lockdowns without plans to deal with the related spikes in domestic violence, but there are some exceptions. According to NBCnews.com, in France women can get help in pharmacies whose personnel contact the police when they are given a certain, designated signal. There are also some hotels that are available for abused women in France. Italians have developed a new app that helps women get assistance without making a call. They are also trying to allocate funds for shelters for abused women. In the U.K., the Home Secretary is talking openly about the problem and telling men they won’t get away from crimes involving domestic violence.

In the United States, there is no comparable national response, which puts additional pressure on public interest organizations to do what they can. Those resources include The National Domestic Violence Hotline, The National Parent Helpline, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Other resources are available.

In addition to these resources, potential victims should have a safety plan with a list of people and their phone numbers they can call on in an emergency such as someone at violence against women hotlines, their local police department, supportive friends, child protective services and family member who might be able to help. Another thing that is helping some women is the ability to text people for help versus calling if the person who is abusing them is nearby.

Victims or women who are struggling with an abusive relationship during these difficult times can also turn to mental health providers who are conducting Telehealth sessions on video platforms such as Doxy.me, VSee.com, Zoom.us and other technologies who are offering video therapy sessions. One place a person can locate a Telehealth provider is on Zocdoc.com, a website that helps people find doctors and make actual appointments online.

Above all, every woman who is living with someone who abuses her or her children needs to have a plan so that she can put it into action if and when it becomes necessary.

Joan: My main focus is on the courts, because frankly, nobody can stop a violent abuser who is intent on hurting someone, without the power of the courts and police. Courts should be following the example of the UK, where the family court not only issued general guidance to parents sharing custody, but also some guidance aimed at parents with a history of domestic violence. I am not aware of any U.S. court which has acknowledged the particular problems in such cases, perhaps because there is a mistaken belief that no court would order shared parenting if one parent was truly abusive. Guidelines should be issued by courts addressing conditions in which a parent may withhold a child from the other due to the coronavirus; procedures for how to take a dispute over such matters to court; and ensuring prompt adjudications that take reasonable account of children’s and parents’ safety from both a health and abuse standpoint. One set of minimal suggested guidelines can be found here.

Of course, police should take domestic violence twice as seriously as they usually do, if not more so, knowing how triply at-risk so many families currently are and how few avenues for safety they have. Police should arrest and detain abusers whenever they have probable cause to do so.

Shelters are doing the best they can, and should continue to follow federal guidelines including social distancing, hand sanitizing and masks.

Frankly, the quiet unsung heroes and heroines right now are state-based domestic violence lawyers and advocates, who are redoubling their efforts on behalf of abuse survivors, sometimes at personal risk to their own health, with or without hazard pay, by taking clients to court, meeting with them at hospitals, working with the courts to get the protections that are needed, and even, in D.C., reminding the courts that the wholesale release of defendants convicted of misdemeanors currently under consideration for the sake of the defendant’s health, may put women and children at great risk, especially because most domestic violence and many sexual assault convictions are misdemeanors. Some horrific abusers are already being released in other states in the name of protecting them from the potential for contracting the virus in prison, with no regard to the risks to which this subjects their innocent victims.

John: Thank you both. This problem is exceedingly troubling and dire, but the work of advocates like you provides some reason for hope.

Joan Meier is Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School, where she also directs the National Family Violence Law Center at GW.

Dr. Karyne Messina is a psychologist, psychoanalyst and author. Her first book, Misogyny, Projective Identification and Mentalization: Psychoanalytic, Social and Institutional Manifestations, was published by Routledge in 2019. She is currently writing her second book, Hurricane Trump: Assessing the Damage, Learning from the Past, and Planning for the Reconstruction of American Values.

John Moot is a lawyer who represents victims of domestic violence in obtaining restraining orders and his upcoming novel, Virtue, will be released on August 4, 2020.

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