When the pandemic began, many began warning of a partner pandemic—the likelihood of a corresponding increase in domestic violence: partner violence, child abuse, and even pet abuse. Unfortunately, it is a well-documented phenomenon that after natural disasters and times of prolonged stress, domestic violence increases. Why? Research suggests that feeling like a victim can trigger control issues in those who have issues processing feelings. Other factors include depression, feelings of inadequacy, increased alcohol and drug use, losing employment, and other untreated mental health issues.
No matter where you live or what your setting, children and adults in your congregation have been affected by domestic abuse. According to the CDC, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience physical violence by their intimate partner at some point during their lifetimes. About 1 in 3 women and nearly 1 in 6 men experience some form of sexual violence during their lifetimes.[i] 97% of perpetrators are male. [ii] The numbers are overwhelming, but let us accept these facts as one of the places where ministry gets very real.
For someone living with the risk, stress, and fear of domestic violence, the pandemic creates a perfect storm. Children in many school districts will continue distance-learning from home. Many families are experiencing economic stress. Safe places like camps, boys/girls clubs, and grandparent’s homes may be off-limits.
Actual physical or sexual violence is typically only one part of a broader informal system of control, dominance, intimidation, and manipulation. Being stuck at home with an abusive family member makes it even easier for the abuser to use the common tools of abuse: isolation from friends, family, and employment; constant surveillance; strict behavioral rules, and restricting funds for necessities such as food, clothing, and sanitary supplies.[iii]
Friends, I suspect that like me, you often wonder if things are okay at home for kids and adults you know. I am urging you to take that a step further. Don’t wait for victims of violence to come to you; check in with kids and adults you believe to be vulnerable. Don’t assume it’s private family business. Don’t ignore warning flags.
When possible, express concern to individuals directly, understanding they might not be able to communicate freely or they might be afraid to admit abuse exists in the home:
- Ask: Do you feel safe at home?
- Name violence, intimidation, and any abuse described for what it is.
- Get help.
- Stay available for support.
If you have suspicions of abuse, make a call today. Where to start? If someone is in immediate danger, call 911 or a domestic abuse hotline. I often call county social workers, especially the ones embedded in school districts. My buddy Joe in my church’s school district is a county social worker who helps get me to the right person whether I’m dealing with a vulnerable adult or child. There should be some version of a Child Protective Services in-take line in your county; keep calling until you find the right person. Allegations may not always be able to be substantiated, but a file will be started. That can help protect a child when CPS is contacted by someone else later.
When I speak to a social worker about a situation affecting a child (whether abuse in the home or directed at the child), I will also follow up with a call to the child’s school counselor so teachers and staff can be aware and supportive. When appropriate, I confidentially share concerns with church staff and volunteers, though honestly, not everyone in every situation.
Mandatory reporter laws, unfortunately, vary by state. Some church bodies have historically advocated against including clergy, youth workers, and church volunteers as mandatory reporters to protect against the sanctity of the confessional and the pastor/penitent relationship. It is my opinion that you have a responsibility to help that person, no matter your role.
When an abused person is ready to leave, the church can help with planning, housing, funds, etc. Be available and tap resources where you can.
There are people among us living through unimaginable circumstances. Let us be aware and proactive in doing everything we can to keep children and adults safe. Check here for list of resources.
Austin, D. W., 31.7 (2008). Hyper-Masculinity and Disaster: Gender Role Construction in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina. Paper presented at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, Sheraton Boston and the Boston Marriott Copley Place. At www.allacademic.com/meta/p241530_index.html
Bell, S. A., & Folkerth, L. A. (2016). Women's Mental Health and Intimate Partner Violence Following Natural Disaster: A Scoping Review. Prehospital and disaster medicine, 31(6), 648–657. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049023X16000911
Fothergill, A. (2008). Domestic Violence after Disaster: Voices from the 1997 Grand Forks Flood. In B. D. Phillips and B. H. Morrow (Eds.), Women and Disasters: From theory to practice (pp131-154). USA: International Research Committee on Disasters.
Schumacher, J. A., Coffey, S. F., Norris, F. H., Tracy, M., Clements, K., & Galea, S. (2010). Intimate partner violence and Hurricane Katrina: predictors and associated mental health outcomes. Violence and victims, 25(5), 588–603. https://doi.org/10.1891/0886-6708.25.5.588
[i] Huecker MR, Smock W. Domestic Violence. [Updated 2020 Jun 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499891/
[ii] Understanding Domestic Abusers: Gender and Intimate Partner Violence - Gender and domestic abuse - NYS OPDV. (n.d.). Opdv.Ny.Gov. Retrieved July 20, 2020, from https://opdv.ny.gov/professionals/abusers/genderandipv.html#note75