According to Rhonda Fleming, the director of education and outreach for the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped domestic violence.
“There were many women and families who still fled,” Fleming said. “Domestic violence is like a pandemic inside of a pandemic.”
Fleming, who was a panelist at, “Violence on the Rise: The Troubled Relationship Between COVID-19 and Domestic Violence,” said despite a decrease in reporting and hotline calls since the start of the pandemic, the Women’s Shelter has remained full.
“Early on when the shelter-in-place order started, the rise of intimate partner violence was very well notable. It’s a global impact that we’ve seen domestic violence had increased,” Fleming said. “Reporting decreased because it became very difficult for victims to reach out.”
This Q&A-style event took place on Wednesday and was an installment in Pitt’s “This is Not ‘Normal’: Allyship and Advocacy in the age of COVID-19” town hall series. The panel was hosted by Carrie Benson, the prevention and education coordinator in Pitt’s Sexual Violence Prevention Office, and Paula Davis, the associate vice chancellor for diversity in the School of Health Sciences. At the panel, participants asked questions ranging from domestic violence in LGBTQ+ communities to how to support victims of gender-based violence during the pandemic.
One of the topics discussed was victims’ rights in criminal proceedings. Elizabeth Letelier, a legal advocate for the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, said because of the coronavirus pandemic there have been less victim impact statements presented. Victim impact statements are written or oral statements that allow a survivor to demonstrate the impact a crime has had on them.
“Victims can’t come to court due to childcare, inability to find transportation or not being able to take off work,” Letelier said. “Others don’t want to go out in public due to COVID.”
Seth Young, psychological services clinician at the University Wellness Center, said there’s also been a decrease in the number of survivors attending counseling and therapy appointments, making it difficult to assess the survivor’s safety at home.
“They fear that someone may be listening in on their calls around the corner,” Young said. “We try to find them safe spaces where they can talk and we do proper risk assessments and proper treatment planning, but also try to identify with the fact and sympathize with the fact that this is a very difficult time.”
Daniel Lopez, graduate student in the School of Public Health, said COVID-19 presents an increased set of financial and social worries for marginalized communities, leading to a rise in substance abuse and subsequently an increase in gender-based violence. According to American Academy of Pediatrics News, 62% of Hispanic families and 50% of Black families have lost a job or had their work hours cut due to the pandemic.
Lopez added that communities of color and the LGBTQ+ community face a unique set of challenges during this pandemic due to preexisting inequalities like access to proper health care and unsafe living situations because some family members may not be accepting of a victim’s sexuality.
“COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people when you look at the health disparities in the community,” Lopez said. “This current pandemic can be a reminder of the stigmatization and discrimination against LGBT people that happened during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”
Another topic of discussion during the panel was what allies can do to uplift and support survivors. Michele Montag, co-founder of Setpoint — a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing gender-based violence and sexual assault by empowering survivors through self-defense — said the app RUSafe is one of the many ways friends and family members of a survivor can help. RUSafe determines the potential for gender-based violence in a dangerous relationship based on the Danger Assessment, which is a 20 question tool used to assess risk factors through yes or no responses.
“This app can help you get a sense of a relationship you or someone else might have,” Montag said. “It provides one with a nationwide network of survivor resources, so if you know someone who is not in Pittsburgh, you can still help them through this app.”
However, Montag said one of the most basic things anyone can do to help survivors is stop victim-blaming and victim-shaming. She said to avoid using phrases like ‘Why didn’t you leave the relationship?’ and ‘How could you stay with them?’
“There are many facets of abuse and many reasons why someone might remain within a relationship,” Montag said. “Controlling behaviors happen over time and can come from seemingly innocuous things”
Montag also said working toward decriminalizing self-defense for women of color and those who are gender non-conforming could make a large difference for survivors who are wrongfully incarcerated.
“Individuals are often treated as aggressors in situations regardless of the motives or actions of the abuser, and there are many examples of people incarcerated for self-defense,” Montag said.
Montag added that self-defense means setting boundaries even among friends and family members.
“Speaking from a self-defense perspective, it’s important to not treat it as something that is predicated on the notion of stranger danger when most abuse comes from people that we know,” Montag said. “It’s not uncommon for us to shame one another for setting boundaries.”
Fleming also said supporting survivors of domestic violence is one of the best ways to help them.
“One of the ways that we can survive during this time is to reach out and help one another,” Fleming said. “If you are aware of someone who is suffering at the hands of an abuser and they can’t make the call themselves, you make the call to get them support.”