Part 1: How to adapt your domestic abuse assessments during the pandemic

By David Mandel, Founder & Executive Director of the Safe & Together Institute

During this time of crisis, adapting our work with families impacted by perpetrators’ behaviors is a critical task.  Disasters and crises are associated with a differential impact on vulnerable individuals and families. (Jenkins & Phillips, 2008; Molyneaux et al., 2020) The COVID-19 outbreak and the stresses of the social responses is affecting a wide swath of our societies including adult and child domestic abuse survivors. The Safe & Together Institute is committed to doubling its efforts during this time to provide critical and useful information and virtual options for training and support. The following is the first in a series of COVID-19 specific practice-oriented blog posts.   

Using a perpetrator pattern-based approach to assess domestic abuse is more important than ever. As the effects of the pandemic and social distancing ripple through our communities, all aspects of everyday life are being impacted. Many families are experiencing multiple changes in their routines at the same time. For example, most children are now home all day due to closings of daycare and schools; one or both parents are now at home due to transitioning to telework, the loss of their job, or self-isolation. This is all occurring in an environment of general increased anxiety for the health and safety of loved ones, rising financial worries and in some cases, immediate health concerns for a family member sick with the coronavirus.

Like everyone else, perpetrators of domestic abuse are likely to adapt their behavior to the current circumstances, but not necessarily in good ways. The effects of the coronavirus outbreak may have implications for the perpetrators’ patterns of behaviors and on child and family functioning.

Below are some key areas to look for in your assessments of perpetrators’ patterns and some strategies for responding:

The current climate provides increased opportunity to monitor and control family members: With social distancing keeping families together in their homes, adult and child survivors will have less opportunities to have contact with supportive friends, families, community members and providers. The contact they can have will often be through social media, phone and other forms of technology which the perpetrator may be easily able to monitor.

  • Practice tip: f you notice decreased contact from a survivor, do not assume that it is by their own choice, or a natural result of the crisis. If a child does not show up for an appointment, do not make assumptions about why they didn’t show up. It may be due to the chaos of the new situation or the active interference of the perpetrator. Assess the situation for the perpetrator’s pattern of behavior.
  • Practice tip: Take extra care when speaking to a survivor by phone, text or video chat. Assume that their calls and communications are being monitored by a perpetrator living in the home until you have partnered with the survivor to determine her freedom to talk openly. Remember that if the perpetrator is checking her phone, a survivor may be abused if she erases her call logs, text messages, or browser history.

Increase in emotional, physical, or sexual abuse and financial control: If the perpetrator is spending more time in the home with more access to family members, we may see an increase of different forms of abuse. This may range from increased criticism of their partner’s parenting to using the pandemic to justify increased financial control. It may take the form of stopping his partner from caring for an elderly loved one or forcing them to continue to work even when they are scared of becoming sick.  When the perpetrator is home more than normal, and his partner is working, it may give him more opportunity to abuse the children.

  • Practice tip: As always, assess the perpetrator’s pattern of behavior as the family’s situation changes.  If you are working with a survivor, ask her questions about what she is most worried about related to the changes in the family’s situation. If you are working with the perpetrator, assess how the situation is changing, how he is managing his fears and how he is acting to support and stabilize the family without violence and control.
  • Practice tip: Safety planning with adult and child survivors needs to be revisited as soon as possible. Any plans for responding to new situations of violence, created before the pandemic, may not be possible to enact. For example, family members, who were resources before, may no longer be able to help.  In many areas, women’s sector and domestic abuse workers are ramping up their ability to work virtually with clients. Learn about the remote resources being developed in your area.

In the next blog post, we will be writing about how these (and other) changes in perpetrators’ patterns may impact adult and child survivors. 

The Safe & Together Institute is in the process of setting up a Virtual Academy. This will include existing free webinars and other materials related to COVID-19, new offerings (like a Virtual CORE Training), and our existing e-learning courses. Join our mailing list for updates.

Listen to our podcast: Partnered with a Survivor 

• Reading List •

Jenkins, P., & Phillips, B. (2008). Battered Women, Catastrophe, and the Context of Safety after Hurricane Katrina. Feminist Formations, 20(3), 49–68. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236785236_Battered_Women_Catastrophe_and_the_Context_of_Safety_after_Hurricane_Katrina 

Molyneaux, R., Gibbs, L., Bryant, R. A., Humphreys, C., Hegarty, K., Kellett, C., Gallagher, H. C., Block, K., Harms, L., Richardson, J. F., Alkemade, N., & Forbes, D. (2020). Interpersonal violence and mental health outcomes following disaster. BJPsych Open, 6(1), e1. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjo.2019.82