Austin Ryan-Mas: Pandemic raises the threat of domestic violence

(Gillian Flaccus | AP photo) Police caution tape surrounds a playground in Lake Oswego, Ore., on March 24, the day after Gov. Kate Brown issued a statewide stay-at-home order that closed many businesses, as well as all playgrounds, basketball courts and sport courts. As families across the country and the globe hunker down at home, it's another danger, equally insidious if less immediately obvious, that has advocates deeply concerned: A potential spike in domestic violence, as victims spend day after day trapped at home with their abusers.

Utah has seen a rise in domestic violence with the onset and escalation of COVID-19. COVID has exposed many stressed systems in this country — from unemployment to health care access. I’ve found that the intricate system of domestic violence services belongs on that list.
Currently, I’m working as a therapist at a counseling center that specializes in providing therapy to individuals who have experienced domestic violence. Since the beginning of COVID’s spread, I’ve seen an uptick in individuals seeking services. Conversations with therapists and domestic violence advocates have confirmed that many other shelters and domestic violence organizations are also experiencing a sharp up-tick.
COVID lockdowns have placed many struggling couples in closer contact. Research indicates that more together-time at home correlates with higher levels of abuse for vulnerable couples. To make matters worse, domestic violence incidents increase when families experience greater levels of stress, such as job losses caused by the pandemic.
Individuals who perpetrate domestic violence often isolate their intimate partners as a control tactic. These tactics closely mirror settings engendered by COVID lockdowns. On top of this, children are more likely to witness incidents of domestic violence because children are currently spending more time at home.
To make matters worse, it’s more difficult for people experiencing abuse to reach out for help when they are being constantly monitored by an abusive partner. Individuals experiencing abuse are often told to leave home, but uprooting in environments of domestic violence is a complicated process.
Serious harm and homicide are most likely to occur during the period in which an individual leaves an intimate partner. When kids are involved, it makes the situation all the more complex.

My agency, Amethyst Center for Healing, has been working to implement a program where individuals who perpetrate violence are moved to a residential facility. There they learn effective communication skills, coping strategies for distress, and education around power and control dynamics. Clients are kept in safe contact with family members via trained case workers. A primary benefit of this program is that partners experiencing abuse don’t have to uproot and leave home (with or without children). This program is modeled after the Beit Noam Project, which has been praised by the United Nations.
I believe the systemic strains of COVID further illuminate the usefulness for such a program. The level of danger that children and people experiencing intimate partner violence are experiencing calls for new approaches. The fear and anxiety that domestic violence causes is currently destroying many Utah families. We need programs that can help heal these dysfunctional family dynamics.
Unfortunately, programs such as these are not able to serve our communities at the current rate of domestic violence, and Utah COVID cases continue to remain high. Additionally, parents are anxious about the uncertainties surrounding the upcoming school year.
COVID continues to put significant strain on families; and that’s without accounting for the increased risk of domestic violence. Utah families deserve better, and collectively we are capable of making necessary change.

Austin Ryan-Mas

Austin Ryan-Mas, MSW, is a counselor at Amethyst Center for Healing, Salt Lake City.
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