COVID-19 Complicates, Not Causes, Domestic Violence

A woman who was in my high school graduating class was murdered recently. Her boyfriend killed my classmate and her 14 year-old daughter in Vallejo, California, before turning the gun on himself. 

I found out about her death on Facebook. Mutual friends were tagging her, expressing their shock and disbelief. I couldn’t stop scouring all the posts on her Facebook wall and the newspapers for more information about her relationship with this man and the circumstance of her death. 

This tragedy was not triggered by California’s shelter-in-place order, or COVID-19 panic. Nor was the recent murder-suicide of a woman by her partner in Salt Lake City, another in New York, nor the murder of a Rhode Island woman.

Though the stay-at-home orders have given abusers more hours in the day and more ammunition for abuse, the situation doesn’t cause the violence. Instead, it aggravates cycles of abuse and the existing failings in the United States’ justice system.

I experienced these failings a year ago after my boyfriend strangled me. He was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence and spent three days in jail until they arraigned him. He pled not guilty, and was released on his own recognizance.

Until I had an alarm system installed, I was terrified that he would come back to kill me. 

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Though the stay-at-home orders have given abusers more hours in the day and more ammunition for abuse, the situation doesn’t cause the violence. Instead, it aggravates cycles of abuse and the existing failings in the United States’ justice system.

Intimate partner violence is an ongoing epidemic that local, city, state and federal governments fail to address. 

In response to the spike in domestic violence cases since the stay-at-home was ordered, Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee signed an emergency order with the aim to protect victims of domestic violence. But the state Senate opted not to support the order after the 30-day period when the governor would need Senate’s approval to maintain the orders. 

The stay-at-home orders might keep victims of domestic violence from their work and social life, making it challenging to escape danger. Confinement with an abuser can also empower a twisted reality they concoct.

A core strategy of abusers is to isolate their victims. My ex-boyfriend who assaulted me told me I should not talk to my friends about the relationship because it was confusing me.

Isolation is also a key risk factor for domestic violence.

During this pandemic, some abusers have threatened their partner if they leave the house, and accused them of trying to harm, or even kill, them by bringing COVID back home. This tactic manipulates the victim into believing she is the dangerous one.

This was a strategy in the abusive relationship I was in—so much so, during the last couple months we were together, I kept telling him I would “do better” and not act out in a way that’s triggering. I almost checked myself into a psychiatric hospital because of frequent meltdowns and self-doubt.

Without access to private conversations with trusted friends, counselors or other support networks, the victim’s tendency to internalize their partner’s accusations may become more acute.

However, this wholesale acceptance of justified violence can solidify even without sustained isolation. Victim blaming encourages self-blame and is common among mutual friends, community members, and even police officers and attorneys. 

The last time I talked to the district attorney assigned to the case, he ended up telling me he wouldn’t talk to me again, that I was making too much trouble for him.  This all-too-common language continues the pattern of diverting blame from the perpetrator.

According to the Los Angeles Police Department, if a victim does press charges, this action can often cause more harm than good, as it may enrage their partner. Justice for the victim rarely comes in a form that would create safety.

In 2014, Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Abuse, told NPR, that courts might convict someone of a misdemeanor, sentence him to community service and serve him with a criminal protective order.

A 2018 Washington Post analysis of 280 men who killed their intimate partner revealed that 36 percent of them had a previous domestic violence conviction or restraining order.

COVID-19 Complicates, Not Causes, Domestic Violence
(“Domestic slayings: Brutal and foreseeable” / Washington Post)

One of these homicide victims was 24 year-old Ciera Jackson, who just been granted a restraining order to keep her safe from the boyfriend who would kill her in several days. 

To be sure, there are district attorneys who are strong advocates for victims of domestic violence and will fight to have perpetrators of violence convicted and sentenced to jail time or prison—but this is not a widespread policy that gives a survivor confidence in her safety.

A criminal protective order is just a piece of paper; criminal protective orders and restraining orders usually include removal of the criminal’s gun rights. A legal document does not stop a man—or anyone—who may be angry that their partner betrayed them by calling the police and pressing charges. It does not stop a person from killing a woman and her child.

When I was strangled, I didn’t feel that my boyfriend was trying to kill me; I did, however, sense that his action was a threat: He could kill me if he wanted.

Though all domestic violence doesn’t result in homicide, district attorneys, local law enforcement and community members need to treat all cases of domestic violence as if the next incident could be homicide.

Virginia recently imposed more restrictions on gun ownership for people with domestic violence convictions, hoping to keep victims from being murdered.

But for the past year, the federal Violence Against Women Act has remained stalled for renewal. Pausing protections against women treats them as disposable. 

Harsher sentences for misdemeanor domestic violence cases would take into consideration that this incident is part of a larger pattern and the level of violence in these relationships usually grows worse, not better. 

The United States could take their lead from Scotland and the other British isles. These countries now include emotional abuse as domestic violence. Along with this, they have added comprehensive services for victims. 

When the courts reopen around the country—as many are scheduled to do later this month—that doesn’t assure these victims will be any safer. 

Like so many women around the country, my friend knew that too well.


Dawn Trook is a faculty member in the writing program at University of California, Merced and also teaches in a degree completion program at the California Correctional Women’s Facility.