Researchers are calling it “a pandemic within a pandemic.” COVID-19 has exacerbated conditions for domestic abuse, trapping victims at home and stripping them of options to get help. Last spring, as lockdown measures intensified around the world, domestic abuse hotlines were flooded. In New York, the Violence Intervention Program saw an uptick in calls by almost 35 percent in March, mostly from women seeking shelter because they weren’t safe at home.
Millions of other victims, however, remain stuck with their abusers. While the lack of reported cases make current data difficult to come by, 2010 statistics from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control determined that one in four women and one in seven men in the U.S. have been the victim of severe violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. And that doesn’t even count the number of victims of financial abuse — a more insidious form of intimate partner coercion that also prevents many victims from gaining the means to flee.
Dr. Adrienne Adams, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, defines economic abuse as “behavior that seeks to control a person’s ability to acquire, use, or maintain economic resources, and threatens their self-sufficiency and financial autonomy.” Her research has found that 99 percent of violent abusers use financial tactics to control their victims. But countless others use it to exact dominance over their partners without causing physical harm — which can make it harder to spot cases.
“When most people think of abuse, they think of welts and bruises,” says Dr. Shannon Curry, a psychologist based in Newport Beach, California. “But intimate partner abuse is often more nuanced. Many of these women don’t even know that they’re being abused. They’ve been gaslit by their partner to think that they can’t be trusted with money, or that they’ve done something to deserve having their resources taken away.”
Economic abuse usually falls into one of two categories, says Adams. One involves restricting a partner’s access to economic resources, perhaps by preventing that partner from working, taking her income, hiding money, or denying access to financial accounts and statements. The other involves exploiting a partner’s resources — making her buy him things, building up debt in her name, or destroying her credit. “Coercion happens in different ways,” she says. “I’ve heard stories like, ‘We were at Best Buy, and my partner was pressuring me to buy this giant TV on credit in my name, and I knew that if I didn’t, there would be hell to pay.’”
Adding COVID to that dynamic has been disastrous on many fronts. Economic uncertainty and shocks to household income all correlate positively with intimate partner abuse, according to data collected during the Great Recession. The same study found that even anticipatory financial anxiety can trigger abusers: “Rapid increases in the unemployment rate increased men’s controlling behavior toward romantic partners even after we adjust for unemployment and economic distress at the household level,” researchers concluded.
Predictably, the pandemic has left victims more strapped than usual. They may have lost their job due to COVID, had to drop out of the workforce due to lack of child care, or been forced to spread their paychecks even thinner to support unemployed family members (including an abusive partner). “We need to address the intersection between poverty and abuse,” says Sara Wee, a director at the Center for Survivor Agency and Justice. Her organization is currently collecting data on the pandemic’s effects on domestic-abuse survivors, and almost all survey respondents (92 percent) said they were having financial trouble.
Victims also have fewer opportunities to get help these days. “Prior to COVID, if I had somebody in the office, even if they didn’t disclose abuse, I could screen for it,” says Curry. “For example, one red flag that I’ve seen before is a patient’s credit cards getting declined when she’s paying for a session, out of the blue, because her partner had cut her off.” Now that in-person appointments are rare, however, it’s harder to pick up on signs. And it’s potentially dangerous to ask certain questions during remote sessions. “In some cases, a patient might be talking to me in her bedroom, and her abuser is listening at the door,” she says.
Even when they are able to get through to someone, resources might not be available. “We know from our survey with service providers that they’ve had to turn away survivors because of COVID,” says Adams. “They’ve had to reduce their hours and furlough staff because their funding is going down, or because their staff is sick.” Even before the pandemic, there weren’t enough shelter beds to meet demand; now services are even more strapped. “I think it’s reasonable to expect that more women are being forced to stay in abusive relationships because of their lack of other options,” she says.
Or, as Curry puts it, “If your partner has taken control of your bank accounts, made you sell your car, and refused to get you a new phone after he smashed your last one, what are you supposed to do? If you’re trying to leave, you can’t even text or call a shelter. You can’t arrange transportation to a family member’s house because you don’t have access to the funds.”
Efforts to provide financial aid can be fraught, too. There have been widespread reports of financial abusers pocketing any pandemic aid that was sent to their partners. “A $1,200 stimulus check could go a long way towards taking that step to leave,” says Adams. “But if you have an abusive partner, you may not see a dime of pandemic relief.” Wee confirms that many domestic-abuse victims had trouble accessing their stimulus money, often because it was taken from them (by an abusive partner) or because they were scared to set up a mail-forwarding address (if they had ended the relationship).
Still, experts say that addressing the financial needs of survivors is one of the best ways to help them, especially since the legal system isn’t always helpful (sometimes police don’t even view economic abuse as a crime). The Center for American Progress, a public-policy research institute, has compiled a list of recommendations to both state and federal governments to help ensure survivors’ economic security, both during the pandemic and in the years to come. The policies are hardly groundbreaking (more funding is needed to provide survivors with access to affordable food, housing, medical services, and childcare). But if these measures were included in the next round of pandemic aid legislation, as some legislators have called for, they could provide critical support for victims at a time when the financial scars of their abuse are more debilitating than ever.
If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Abuse hotline at 1-800-799-7233.