In many households when men are at home, the women are in danger. And the longer a man is home, the more persistent the need for hypervigilance and the more drawn out the anxiety. The anticipation of violence can be almost as terrible as the violence itself. The pent-up horrors of abusive households are already familiar to millions of Americans. The arrival of a pandemic and all that has gone with it—the stay-at-home orders, the infected law enforcement officers, the economic uncertainty—is likely making it familiar to millions more.
This is not just a guess. For several years, I worked as a lawyer in a domestic violence shelter. My office, a small cubicle inside an already small room, could not be accessed without walking through a common area with a television. After long weekends and during the holidays, the room would have twice as many new faces, always in the same configuration of grief and consternation: Worried mothers watching their exhausted children stare at the television screen. Just off the open TV room, a glass wall with a door marked off a corridor that led to eight residential crisis rooms that you could access only with a card. Around Christmas, New Year, and the Fourth of July, the rooms had to be shared, and deep into the holidays, even that wasn’t enough. Cots had to be set up in whatever space was available. Women and their children would trip and toddle over pieces of other people’s lives. When all the cots were occupied, we had to turn people away. I knew the cruel chronology of the holidays from personal experience, too. Years before I became a lawyer at a domestic violence shelter, I walked into one the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.
Now, when pundits, epidemiologists, and politicians repeat the words “stay at home” as a strategy or admonition, I imagine the hell that is brewing behind closed doors—the secret violence against the most vulnerable and those with the least recourse. For the women I represented and the woman I was when I fled abuse, “home” is a word fraught with fear and suffering.
While days may stretch long for most of us now, the days are unrelenting for those facing violence. I think of the children who got small sips of normalcy and safety at school, but who are at home now, being beaten and battered or forced to watch beatings and batterings. The horror of the virus is not simply its own contagion but the virulence of the circumstances it creates.
Financial uncertainty can foment violence in the home. Women make up a larger percentage of the informal economy, providing care to the elderly and children (both jobs unlikely to provide paid leave); women constitute two-thirds of tipped restaurant workers, nearly all of whom have been let go. Studies have shown that conflict evolving from economic stress is a trigger for abusive episodes. The truth is that angry, bored, and isolated men are more likely to vent their frustrations on the most proximate target, which is often their female partner. Abusers know the conditions of captivity that this pandemic has produced, and it will likely only increase the intensity of their wrath.
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If the women make it to a shelter, there is the new lethality of a shared space. Shelters try their best to ensure safety and health in a crowded environment, but they are communal environments. In the shelter where I worked, hygiene and safety rules meant certain things were not permitted in the shelter rooms. Food was one of them. All meals had to be taken in a cafeteria. Residents and their children could access snacks like juice and peanut butter, bread, fruit, and similar items but these too had to be eaten in the cafeteria.
It was a good plan, and for the most part it worked. But how can domestic violence shelters keep survivors separate in communal spaces to make sure that infection does not spread? How can they ensure that the family of four that came in last night are not asymptomatic shedders who will infect everyone? Indeed, if someone or a family does get infected, how do they keep them in quarantine and isolation, when space is severely limited?
A long list of culprits is responsible for making this situation worse. Even before the pandemic, repeated cuts to Violence Against Women Act provisions left shelters—like the one where I worked—defunct or flailing.
All these are concerns facing the survivors who actually get in to a domestic violence shelter. Many domestic violence situations require interventions of law enforcement officers who can either arrest perpetrators or transport the women and children to shelters. The first thing I tried to do in such situations was to assist my clients in procuring protective orders. Later, I could also help them file for divorce and petition courts for emergency hearings. Social workers also provided assistance, helping my clients obtain SNAP benefits and enroll in other social programs that would help them leave the abusive relationship and obtain more permanent shelter.
All of this is in jeopardy. During a pandemic, police officers, who intervene in fights where guns are pointed and knives are drawn, can no longer reliably provide the pause that usually comes with their arrival. By March 26, 300 NYPD officers had tested positive for Covid-19 and nearly 3,000, or a full one-tenth of the officers of the entire department, called in sick. Given the growing number of cases among officers infected, fewer are available to come to the rescue when a victim of domestic violence calls 911. With a contagious disease spreading its deadly and invisible tentacles, police departments will focus on reducing interactions within homes and focus on keeping public peace. Some police departments have already diverted officers to avoid physical contact to retain their workforce.
In sum, as Gail Patin, the shelter director at Hubbard House in Jacksonville, Florida, put it, “The abuser has increased access to survivors and the children while the survivor has decreased access to resources, meaning the survivor can’t get out into the community like they normally would to get help.” Trapped, women and children face emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, in some cases making the actual threat of the virus a secondary concern. With shelters struggling, courts and court systems largely closed, and police officers redeployed or out sick, many women are in danger during these long days of self-isolation and quarantine.
Now, it is up to ordinary people to begin to raise money, space, and resources for the thousands of survivors of domestic violence that will need them. Those with access to uninhabited rental or event spaces, or really any space, should consider donating them for a short period to shelters facing a surge in survivors. Others could contact their local domestic violence shelters and ask if they can send food that could be purchased online and shipped to the shelter. Others could offer online classes or even music performances that could be streamed for children in crisis.
In the longer term, it is useful to consider the beginnings of the idea of the “domestic violence shelter.” One of the first, later to be called Transition House, was established in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1975 by a lesbian couple who simply opened their apartment to women who needed shelter. Theirs was an activist and political project, which used radical left politics to coalesce around the agenda of making the home a space free of violence. That was long ago, and since then domestic violence has been depoliticized and handed over to a nongovernmental organization.
Moments of rapid change provide the material for social transformation. On Monday, March 23, 25 senators signed a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services that asked the department to ensure that anti–domestic violence and anti–sexual violence programs have the “resources and information” that they will likely need during the pandemic. The letter, signed by Republicans and Democrats, is a good start, but it creates no provisions that would actually ensure that these resources are allocated. This is how things usually go; setting up domestic violence as a bipartisan issue has meant that neither side is willing to really fight for survivors. Every politician just wants to be seen as caring about domestic violence.
For feminists who want a return to the radical politics of its initial days, it may be something that deserves more than cursory consideration. If feminist politicians made domestic violence and funding shelters part of their primary agenda, we could even have programs like the one just implemented in France. There, Marlène Schiappa, the minister for equality between men and women, is overseeing a program that has made 20,000 hotel rooms available for women fleeing violence. The program acknowledges that a pandemic that forces people into their homes leaves thousands of women and children vulnerable.
During this pandemic, most of us feel at the mercy of a virus for which there is no cure. The sudden and scary reality of this moment should catalyze compassion for the older and ever-present threat of domestic violence. The women who die because of Covid-19 will not only be those who succumb to the virus. Their number will also include some who face violence at home. Perhaps this recognition can pry open the hearts and wallets of those who have not cared before, and push them to help those whom the contagion puts in danger even when they stay at home.