The Pandemic Within the Pandemic

By Casey Gwinn, Esq.

As COVID-19 deaths rise, domestic violence murder-suicides are rising as well. In just the last week, domestic violence murder-suicides have increased 100%.

“Pandemic” means “occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.” Most often used in reference to diseases or viruses, the word has also been used by social scientists in other settings including a “pandemic of cigarette smoking” and a “pandemic of religious extremism”. Long before COVID-19 became a pandemic, there was another pandemic circulating in every country around the world – domestic violence. That pandemic is now dramatically increasing in the face of the novel coronavirus, and its impacts are being felt in powerful and destructive ways.

The uncontrolled rate of domestic violence across the United States and around the world involves millions of women, men, and children each year and results in more than 50,000 women killed annually around the globe, according to the United Nations. This week, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in a public statement said: “I urge all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plan to COVID-19.” But not all leaders have taken such action. The failure to fully understand the first pandemic before the second pandemic, COVID-19, is why many state governors, including those in FloridaOklahomaNevada, Colorado, and others did not even address domestic violence when telling the public to “Stay Home, Stay Safe”, “Stay Home, Stay Healthy”, or “Shelter in Place.” Some Governors, including Roy Cooper in North CarolinaSteve Bullock in Montana, and Jay Inslee in Washingtonrecognized this issue and explicitly said in their orders: “This prohibition shall not apply to individuals whose homes or residences are unsafe or become unsafe, such as victims of domestic violence. These individuals are permitted and urged to leave their homes or residences and stay at a safe alternate location.” Ignoring the first pandemic has robbed many victims of hope in their lives – thinking they have no other choices but to stay home with their abusers and has left domestic violence advocates scrambling to raise awareness and demand additional resources. Home is, at this moment, the most dangerous place domestic violence victims can be and it is getting worse as the coronavirus expands.

Across the country and around the world, news reports are mounting of higher rates of domestic violence as Stay at Home orders are implemented, business closures and layoffs skyrocket, and millions feel nothing but despair and hopelessness. People are losing jobs, finding themselves gripped with fear and anxiety, and many women are now at home quarantined with men who already have a history of domestic violence including strangulation assault, punching, kicking, slapping, and long histories of verbal and emotional abuse. The biggest force multiplier in all of this is the presence of guns in homes ravaged by domestic violence.  Ironically, gun stores are even being treated as an essential service at the federal level – the one thing that NO abusive home needs, during both pandemics, is more guns. For COVID-19, we all need to wear masks, for the other pandemic, we need to get guns away from rage-filled, violent men and give survivors other options for escaping quarantine and their abusers.

Some saw it coming months ago and anyone following the journey with COVID-19 in China saw the dramatic rise in violence against women happen there in February and March, including a tripling of calls for help. Domestic violence intervention professionals have tried to raise awareness about what they anticipated would happen in the United States but now the statistics are bearing it out.  To cite a few communities who reported their increases: Houston, Texas –20% in increase in domestic violence calls; Charlotte Mecklenburg, North Carolina – 18% increase in domestic violence calls; Salt Lake City, Utah – 30% increase in domestic violence incidents; Cherokee County, South Carolina – 35% increase in domestic violence calls.  Internationally, the same trends are clear with a 36% increase in police calls about gender-based violence in FranceIn Australia, there has been a 75% rise in Google searches for domestic violence help. As COVID-19 cases rise, domestic violence cases are rising as well.  As the COVID-19 pandemic expanded, the National Domestic Violence Hotline noted a slight drop in calls, realizing victims are now home with their abusers and it is more difficult to access help.  But as the weeks have passed, calls to hotlines are rising.  In work with Family Justice Centers, where wraparound services, under one roof, are provided to victims by many agencies, we are seeing major increases in calls for help. The Guilford County Family Justice Center in Greensboro and High Point, North Carolina, has reported a 21% increase in those seeking services. The Bexar County Family Justice Center in San Antonio has also reported at 21% increase. Family Justice Centers and shelters are all reporting similar increases. 

But there is a much more important fact, not yet recognized by the media or the public.  As COVID-19 deaths rise, domestic violence murder-suicides are rising as well.  In just the last week, domestic violence murder-suicides have increased 100% compared to the average week each year in the US.  The Violence Policy Institute found in a major study in 2017 that the US has an average of 11 murder suicides per week each year with 65% related to domestic violence.  Between March 28 – April 4, 2020, however, Alliance for HOPE International has identified 22 murder-suicides with 90% of them related to domestic violence. The murdered victims, who have been identified – all women or children – include: Rachel Rae Africa, 39 (Maryland); Leona Moore, 40 (Texas); Angelia Cooper, 47 (Pennsylvania); Heather Zujkowski, 36; Julia Nguyen, 24 (California); Carol Heard, 80 (Pennsylvania); Aymondray Myers, 32 (Oklahoma); Angela Jones, 48 (Virginia); Brielle Kennel, 2 (Virginia); Limbusha Fields, 48 (Oklahoma); Caleb Hatch, 10 (Arizona); Shamara Myers, 32 (Oklahoma); Kalene Anderson, 26 (New York); Adrian Haskell, 11 (California); Julian Haskell, 8 (California); Asia Lawrence, 29 (Georgia); Kevin Figueroa, 15 (Nevada); and Alex Figueroa, 17 (Nevada). There many more dead adults and children who have not been identified. They are victims of the pandemic within the pandemic.

Multiple stories in the Google Alerts and searches performed by the Alliance on “murder-suicides” include the statement: “There is no further public safety concern.”  This is a veiled reference to the fact that the killer is dead and an unspoken statement that this was about a family situation and the general public does not need to be afraid since it only involved that couple or that personal conflict. The media has forgotten the pandemic within the pandemic. And those statements from local law enforcement agencies are wrong.  There should be IMMENSE public safety concern as murder-suicides continue to rise.  Murder-suicides happen at the intersection of rage and despair. 

These increases in murder-suicides are alarming but not surprising since the criminal and civil justice systems are not increasing resources to address the actions of rage-filled men during the COVID-19 pandemic. Arrests are dropping as law enforcements struggle to maintain social order and face closures in court systems, pressure to reduce jail and prison populations, and reduced operations in prosecutor’s offices. Victims are having a hard time extending their restraining orders against abusers or protecting themselves from COVID-19 exposure on child visitation or exchanges with their former abusive partners. Shelters and Family Justice Centers are facing the loss of donations and funding while also navigating overwhelming risk to their own frontline staff from COVID-19. We are hearing reports of women being strangled almost to death and the perpetrators being released from jail within hours or days. Men abusing elderly parents are getting out of jail and home before their victims are even out of the hospital. Systems are missing the pandemic within the pandemic. We are also hearing that the violence is getting more severe than in the past – with one advocate describing a case this week of a woman beaten and strangled four times in a week by her live-in abuser and thinking she must simply stay home and endure his violence.

We need help in our work to protect victims of domestic violence. We must demand attention and action in response to the violence of primarily men against women going on in homes intended to be a safe haven during COVID-19. What we are seeing is not a surprise and it is not new. We need domestic violence offenders to go to jail and/or stay in jail. We have seen it before in war-torn countries and in places where social controls break down – violence against women increases when offenders face no consequences – then more women and children die. We must tell victims of domestic violence that they don’t have to stay quarantined in a dangerous situation.  And we must have the services available for them as soon as they need them. 

Across the country, shelters, non-profit agencies, and Family Justice Centers are doing everything we can to stay open, offer safe housing in shelters or motels, offer meaningful civil legal services, and provide virtual and electronic access to advocacy, safety planning, and support.  But we need far more help than the small amount of money put into the federal stimulus package. We need to ask those that can donate to keep donating. Healthcare systems need massive support to save COVID-19 patients and domestic violence service providers across the country need massive support to save the lives of domestic violence victims and their children.  We call on all to help us address the pandemic within the pandemic.