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Legislators Address Increase in Domestic Violence from COVID-19

November 3, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in domestic violence, and now legislators like Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who is a survivor of domestic violence, are pushing to advance policies to end the abuse. 

“We have seen very, very, very significant increases in domestic abuse this past year,” said Dingell during a virtual event held by the Washington Post, which Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., also attended.

“I lived with it … I know what it’s like. And you have nowhere to escape,” said Dingell.

A February 2021 national report from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found that domestic violence incidents in the U.S. increased by 8.1% following the imposition of stay-at-home orders.

Dingell said that during the pandemic funds from the American Rescue Plan were used by many domestic violence shelters and programs to try to address the increase, but other federal protections like the Violence Against Women Act, fell short.

The Violence Against Women Act, first passed in 1994 and reauthorized by the House in March of 2021, supports things like culturally specific service programs and rape prevention and education. 

The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act which is typically responsible for funding a majority of domestic violence shelters and programs across the country, was reauthorized by the House in October. The House additionally modified the Family Violence and Prevention Services program for victims of domestic violence, including emergency shelters for abuse victims. 

The Senate has not taken action on either of these bills.

“We’ve got to get these bills reauthorized. These shelters, they weren’t getting the money from the programs that they needed because we hadn’t reauthorized the bill that needed to get it there,” said Dingell.

Dingell said the delay on the reauthorization of VAWA is likely due to the push back from the National Rifle Association, which opposes a provision in the legislation that would prevent an abuser who has been convicted of domestic violence from owning a gun.

Domestic violence, which includes rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, impacts more than 12 million women and men in the U.S. each year. Data shows that the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated incidences of domestic violence. Public health measures to combat the virus, such as social distancing have escalated the risk of violence for survivors through more time spent at home, increased levels of household stress, and limited access to advocacy and support resources,” said Monica McLaughlin, director of public policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, in an email to The Well News. 

McLaughlin said that the American Rescue Plan included substantial resources to address survivors’ needs, including $400 million for domestic violence and sexual assault services. 

“These funds have already helped local domestic violence programs. The funds for rape crisis centers and culturally specific victim service providers will start being distributed the week of Nov. 1, providing much needed help for these organizations,” said McLaughlin.

Across the country, domestic violence shelters and programs serve about 1.3 million victims and their family members every year, and the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act funds over 1,500 community-based programs through state formula grants. 

VAWA, the Victims of Crime Act, and funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also provides support to these programs for assisting victims of domestic violence with emergency shelter, counseling, legal assistance, crisis intervention and domestic and dating violence prevention education.

McLaughlin said that for any reauthorization the Senate must pass a bill that meets the identified needs of survivors and communities, and provide safe housing options.

“The lag in reauthorization has perpetuated the status quo, leaving gaps in protections and services,” said McLaughlin. 

Filling in those gaps for over 45 years, the House of Ruth, a D.C.-based domestic violence service provider, has provided housing, counseling, job placement and other services to individuals seeking safety from domestic violence.

Sandra Jackson, the CEO of House of Ruth, said during a phone call with the Well News that the center saw a drastic increase of approximately 1,000 women and children seeking services during the pandemic. 

“Our counseling services were bulging, and we did not close any of our housing programs because at the height of the pandemic many women were in situations deemed not healthy for them, and women wanted to come in and flee their situations,” said Jackson.

Jackson said funds from the American Rescue Plan were used for things like PPE, sanitizer, masks and supporting compensation for staff’s additional work.

“It’s expensive work but it costs to maintain properties, and provide supportive housing. They are not shelters, they live in their own apartments,” said Jackson.

“We have to start where they are with that and get them into job training programs, help them decide what kind of career they are interested in and develop what we call a case plan with them. A big part of our work is about healing, folks have to heal from what they have been through,” said Jackson. 

Jackson said that the funding from the Family Violence Prevention Services Act also helps to provide for communities most vulnerable to domestic violence. 

At House of Ruth, this applies to two out of their 15 sites, East River and Far Southeast Strengthening Collaboratives, which support primarily low wage workers, many of whom lost their jobs during temporary closures.

“People that were already hurting are hurting more as a result of this pandemic. Organizations like House of Ruth need to have access to dollars to provide the services we need. If we don’t help them when they need it, we will have to help them more later, and this will continue this vicious cycle through the generations. We can do something about it in this country and we should,” said Jackson. 

Alexa can be reached at [email protected] 

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