To Become Safer Amid Pandemic We Must Explore Our Responses to Abuse More Deeply

Becoming safe from an abusive partner has most often been defined by the act of leaving the relationship. Leaving can cause hardship, including financial struggles, and is more difficult for survivors who are marginalized by race, gender identity, disability, language or immigration status. While leaving an abuser has been shown to increase danger in the short-term, it is still considered the gold standard for getting safe from abuse.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about stay-at-home orders, the shut-down of courts, slow-downs in obtaining orders of protection, and domestic violence shelters that cannot fill beds due to social distancing health measures for residents and staff. Advocates working with survivors of domestic violence are faced with having to re-think long-held safety-planning strategies, and consider more fully what many survivors have always known: leaving is not the only option. Safety planning in close quarters requires thinking about how to be, if not safe, then safer.

Living under a global pandemic is traumatizing, and puts many couples and families at risk of heightened conflict. Using tools like negotiation and boundary-setting can help meet the added stress, and organizations like Impact in Boston are offering free educational webinars for building these skills. Conflict is different from abuse, the hallmark of which is coercion and control, but could de-escalation, conflict management and avoidance strategies also hold potential for survivors? We think of abuse in terms of crisis, but the day-to-day reality often means managing low-level and chronic risk. Simple strategies, such as time spent in different rooms, walks or exercising outside, keeping to a schedule, and calm activities like working on puzzles can decrease tension and create more space. And while the burden of pandemic living might increase the risk of abuse, relational skill-building may offer options and resources to reduce such vulnerability.

In some cases, it may be important for survivors to learn skills regarding setting assertive boundaries and even physically protecting themselves from abuse. The topic of self-defense has always been controversial. Women, people of color and queer people in particular learn that confronting danger can result in escalation and blame and are conditioned instead to avoid or cooperate — which may be prudent. No one who is targeted should ever feel responsible for an abuser’s behavior, and accountability for abuse should remain squarely on the perpetrator. But there is no one-size-fits-all safety plan, and in this time of increased isolation and reduced options, self-defense strategies and skills may be able to make a difference in managing contact with an abuser. The Center for Anti-Violence Education in Brooklyn, New York, offers virtual workshops about empowerment self-defense training, including verbal boundary-setting, evasive techniques, blocking blows and striking primary bodily targets. Helping survivors gain access to such information can be fundamentally empowering and communicates unequivocally that they have a right to protect themselves from harm.

What if safety planning included coordinated public messaging aimed at those who might harm their partners, especially under the stress and uncertainty of a global pandemic? What if such messaging included online, accessible and free resources for those who are at risk of abusing? Historically, intervention with abusers has been tied to court systems, mandated and fee-based. With such systems less operational, what would happen if nonpunitive, non-mandated and free support became widely available for anyone who felt themselves at risk of over-controlling, threatening, or taking fear and frustration out on partners? Educational intervention and support for those who cause harm must be made more widely available and destigmatized. An example is She Is Not Your Rehab in New Zealand, which approaches violence prevention from a cultural and relational standpoint, encouraging those who might abuse to seek support and learn new strategies for coping and for having safer, healthy relationships. When accessible resources for those at risk of abusing become more available, and the stigma of seeking support decreases, there may be a rise in a survivor’s ability to access support as well, increasing safety overall. This is a key time to explore such responses more deeply.

Considering how to maintain contact with survivors is vital in this time of isolation and distance. Points of access already available to families can help survivors make plans that include regular calls with trusted others, and having someone who cares about safety stay in close contact with the abuser. Creating a safe “pod” with one or two others who are managing the pandemic in mutually agreed upon ways is another option, especially considering child care and home-schooling needs. Contact and connection has always helped to reduce isolation and increase safety, but under pandemic restrictions and distancing that has become harder.

Local agencies and communities wanting to support survivors can think about ways to increase access to technology for survivors and their families. This might include making smart phones and tablets (which are portable and more easily concealed) widely available for free or low-cost to allow survivors to connect to information and education about safety tools, as well as to advocates and peer supports. Tech access for children, in the form of child-friendly tablets, allows families to create space at home for everyone to be appropriately occupied and engaged with the outside world. Stable Wi-Fi, encrypted platforms that meet privacy and confidentiality standards, and clear information about tech safety, including how to log out of sites, delete history and protect passwords, might well be the most critical safety tools under lockdown. The National Network to End Domestic Violence provides information about both the risks and benefits of technology use for survivors of domestic violence.

Mainstream safety options, though impacted, are still available in most localities. Orders of protection are being managed remotely, courts are hearing emergency cases and domestic violence shelters have moved to scattered-site models in order to maintain social distancing needs. Nonetheless, considering safety options outside of these institutionalized responses is long overdue. Let’s not miss the opportunity, for it may serve us well even beyond this catastrophic moment.