The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Making Life Even Harder for People in Domestic Violence Situations, Experts Warn

Woman in self isolation using smartphone by window - stock photo
A woman in self isolation uses a smartphone by a window.Getty Stock Images

Abusers are using fear about the virus to control their partners and stay-at-home orders could put people at greater risk.

Stay home, stay safe, stop the spread. It's the message public health officials across the country are advising to help combat the growing coronavirus pandemic.

But for people in domestic violence situations, staying at home can make life harder and more dangerous. Physically distancing themselves from friends, family, coworkers and resources can make it harder to get help.

Living in close proximity to their abuser during uncertain, anxiety-provoking times can make violence more likely. And fear about contracting COVID-19 can make them hesitate to seek help in emergency rooms or doctor's offices.

Domestic violence organizations have also heard reports of abusers threatening to put partners out on the street to catch coronavirus, a threat that is yet another means of abuse and control, said Joaneileen Coughlan, the director of domestic violence services at Women Rising, a women's empowerment organization in Jersey City, New Jersey. 

"Abuse is about power and control, and during times of crisis, especially in the kind of forced isolation like we are all in, incidents of domestic violence also rise and violence may occur," Coughlan told 

A crisis within a crisis

Like the coronavirus pandemic, gender-based violence is a worldwide problem. One in three women in the world experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime, most often at the hands of a partner, according to the World Health Organization.

But in America, domestic violence is uniquely deadly. Access to a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that a woman will be killed, and women in the U.S. are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed than women in other high-income countries.

The stakes are high when women need to flee an abusive situation. Women Rising has seen its 24-bed shelter fill up in the last few weeks. The organization also helps place people in other local shelters or temporary hotels if they are full.

But in New Jersey, where more than 4,000 people have been sickened by the coronavirus and more than 60 have died, some of the normal shelter options may be unavailable during the pandemic. But Coughlan's team is committed to getting people help. 

"Even though everyone is in a crisis right now because of COVID-19, victims of domestic violence are in a crisis that happens everyday," Coughlan said. "We are continuing to provide services, (regardless of) whatever is going on in the world.

"With COVID-19 happening, we're kind of figuring it out as we go along," she added. "We're working literally around the clock and trying to make sure that any survivor that calls us gets the services he or she needs." 

Nationwide, the go-to resource for people in crisis is the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which typically receives 1,800 to 2,000 calls, texts and chats per day. Recently, staff have seen an increase in survivors reaching out about coronavirus-related concerns, said Katie Ray-Jones, the CEO of the hotline and loveisrespect, an organization dedicated to ending dating violence.

"We are seeing an increase in the number of survivors reaching out who concerned with COVID-19 and how their abusive partner is leveraging COVID-19 to further isolate, coerce, or increase fear in the relationship," Ray-Jones told 

"We are especially concerned that survivors will be unable to reach out for help due to their abusive partner monitoring their behaviors while they are in isolation," she added.

Many domestic violence organization webpages have a button at the top of the navigation bar to quickly exit the site. Text and chat options can also be good for people worried about having their phone calls overheard by an abusive partner. 

Stress and uncertainty

That abusive partner, under their own stress, may act out more during a crisis. While living in close proximity during a self-quarantine situation doesn't necessarily cause healthy relationships to turn abusive, "in homes where abuse is already occurring, and there is a negative financial impact or added stress in the home, we typically see a higher frequency of incidents of abuse and increased severity of abuse," Ray-Jones said. 

The pandemic has definitely thrown many families into financial uncertainty; service workers in restaurants and bars who rely on tips have seen their wages plummet, and some hospitality, tourism and childcare companies have laid people off.  

Unemployment claims have surged in states hit by the coronavirus and many families wonder how they will make ends meet. A historic $2 trillion stimulus package passed the Senate Wednesday and is expected to be voted on by the House. The bill includes sending one-time payments of about $1,200 to families, but some experts warn it isn't enough to keep workers afloat.

Parents trying to juggle working remotely while taking care of children who are off from school or out of daycare also exacerbates stress. 

The economic fallout of the coronavirus may also lead some survivors of domestic violence to worry they don't have the financial resources they need to leave their abusers, or worry about staying healthy in a new living space. 

"We suspect that we may not see a surge in individuals reaching out until shelter-in-place protocols are lifted," Ray-Jones said. "As people start returning to work or school and are apart from their abusive partners, it will be safe and private to reach out for support." 

But it's crucial for people experiencing domestic violence to remember that there is help out there right now, Coughlan and Ray-Jones said. 

Help is still available

Domestic violence organizations want people to know that even amid the mass disruption COVID-19 has caused to everyday life, people don't have to tolerate abusive situations. 

"As domestic violence agencies, we deal with crises every day. For the survivor that's calling, in their world, it is an emergency on any given day, no matter what else is happening in the world," Coughlan said. "We are a crisis organization, so we know how to deal with that." 

Domestic violence organizations can help people make safety plans for themselves and their children, Coughlan said, and if abuse is taking place right now, survivors should still call 911. Police are still able to help, even amid the pandemic. 

Ray-Jones said that while she has heard that some shelters are full or not taking new clients to maintain isolation protocols, advocates at the hotline are always working to find solutions. 

Even if you aren't experiencing domestic violence firsthand, you can still call to get advice on how to help a family member or friend in need, she said. 

"Friends may be the only person other than the abuser that the survivor is in contact with," Ray-Jones explained. "We can provide friends with important safety planning resources and ideas you can pass along."

With social distancing in effect, it's more important than ever to reach out virtually to friends who may be in crisis. 

"Domestic violence is often the hidden secret and an issue that many people feel like it is not their business. However, survivors need all of us now," Ray-Jones said. 

If you or someone you know needs help, you can reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, chat online on, or text "loveis" to 22522.