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Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Domestic violence a growing concern amid coronavirus pandemic

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Domestic violence deaths rose statewide in 2020, with 58 victim lives lost last year.

According to the Wisconsin Domestic Violence Homicide Report, released late last month, five men and 53 women were killed in an act of domestic violence in 2020, with guns used in 52% of cases. In 2019, victim deaths totaled 52.

The coronavirus pandemic has factored into an increase in domestic violence incidents over the past 18 months, with instances of abuse increasing on national and local levels. With October marking Domestic Violence Awareness Month, local organizations and experts are highlighting the prevalence and lasting effects of abuse.

Chelsey Senn, lead victim advocate for Gundersen Health System’s Domestic Violence and Sexaul Assault Program, says the pandemic has increased both the intensity and frequency of acts of domestic violence and impacted the volume of calls for people seeking help.

A report released February 2021 from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice indicates domestic violence incidents in the U.S. increased by 8.1% following lockdown orders in early spring 2020, with data sources including police call logs, emergency hotline registries, health records and more.

“The pandemic has thrown many of the most vulnerable people in our society into especially challenging circumstances, so these findings should not surprise us,” said Thomas Abt, director of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. “Policymakers and researchers should work to further understand the impacts of the pandemic and provide additional resources for domestic abuse prevention and victim services, particularly to those who are most isolated and at risk.”

A study from Georgia State University, published Aug. 17, 2021, found that the pandemic “resulted in a six- to eightfold increase in rates of intimate partner aggression across the U.S.” Acts of physical violence went from two per year pre-pandemic to 15 per year at the start of lockdown, while psychological abuse acts rose from 16 per year to 96.

“People were suddenly under an enormous amount of stress, and we felt relatively certain that this was increasing aggression and violence,” said the study’s lead author Dominic Parrott, director of the Center for Research on Interpersonal Violence. “There’s data showing that after natural disasters, for example, when basic resources are lost and people have to live in close proximity, intimate partner violence goes up. Our fundamental aim was to document what was happening as a result of the pandemic.”

Even prior to this “shadow pandemic,” as termed by UN Women, domestic violence was distressingly common. The National Domestic Violence Hotline states more than one in three women and one in four men in the U.S. will experience rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner, and nearly half of all women and men in the U.S. have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner.

Domestic violence can be exacerbated by stressors such as unemployment, lack of childcare and financial struggles, many of which were faced by couples and families during the pandemic. Stress can also lead to increased substance abuse and, in turn, heightened abusive behavior.

However, Parrott says in a Science Daily article that the Georgia State University study showed that while domestic violence rates were high among heavy drinkers, during the pandemic those who imbibed less were more likely to have increased abusive behaviors.

“People who aren’t heavy drinkers may be able to prevent stress from affecting their relationships under normal circumstances, but we hypothesized that the extreme events of the pandemic might change that. And that’s how the data played out. Pandemic stress didn’t really tip the scales towards violence among heavy drinkers, but for non-heavy drinkers, all bets were off,” Parrott said.

While substance use may have a link to domestic violence, Senn says it is a misconception that abuse stems from a lack of control or chemical dependency issues.

“Domestic violence is all about power and control,” Senn says. “The abusers are not someone who is out of control and can’t contain themselves. They are able to contain it only to their intimate relationship.”

Senn stresses domestic violence can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, income bracket, background or education level, though victims are disproportionately female.

In Wisconsin in 2020, 90% of perpetrators in abuse resulting in death were male, and eight male perpetrators committed suicide after killing their victim.

Beyond physical abuse

Abuse is not always physical, and not always visible. Per New Horizons Shelter and Outreach Centers, forms of physical abuse go beyond hitting, punching or strangling — also included are destroying a victim’s possessions, depriving them of food, water or necessities, or denying medical treatment. Examples of emotional and verbal abuse include blaming the victim for things out of their control, insults, accusations, threats, use of slurs or belittling.

Social abuse can take the forms of following the victim, criticizing them in front of others, forced isolation, recording conversations and resenting attention given to others, while sexual abuse can include both forced engagement in sexual activities or withholding affection as a form of punishment.

New Horizons also designates spiritual abuse, such as ridiculing of beliefs or restricting access to place of worship, and systems abuse, which may include violating restraining orders and lying to officials about legal information.

Financial abuse, such as withholding money, excluding the victim from financial decisions or preventing obtainment of employment, is present in 99% of domestic violence cases, per the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which calls financial abuse “one of the most powerful methods of keeping a survivor trapped in an abusive relationship and deeply diminishes the victim’s ability to stay safe after leaving an abusive partner.”

UN Women notes pandemic related lockdowns and restrictions have also made it harder to have space from a partner or to leave, with public transit options limited, many establishments closed and even some shelters or agencies unable to operate normally. Working or schooling from home and inability to gather with friends or loved ones further limited opportunities for victims to confide in others or for others to recognize and report signs of abuse.

Having children can also make it difficult to move out from an abusive household, whether due to inability to provide financially on one’s own or because the abuser is exerting control over when or if the children can be seen. There may also be a sense of fear in not having knowledge of the abuser’s whereabouts.

“Our definitions of safety are not the same as everyone else’s. You may think, ‘Why don’t they just leave?’ But maybe for somebody in an abusive relationship, having a roof over their head or having food for their children or knowing where that abusive person is at is safer than moving out or leaving the relationship. It’s important to always consider what that person’s definition of safety is and support them in that definition,” Senn explains.

The Georgia State University study authors note that pandemic related economic relief packages could reduce stress and in turn lower instances of intimate partner aggression, though Senn says there are instances where abusers have used these funds as another means of control. Nationwide, there have been reports of domestic violence victims not receiving their payments because the direct deposits were made to an account controlled by their abuser.

“Lots of different complexities have come out of the (pandemic),” Senn says, also citing changes to how the judicial system has operated during lockdown and difficulties in connecting victims to necessary services.

Senn urges anyone experiencing abuse to reach out, noting, “La Crosse is rich with advocacy and support resources,” with services available at Gundersen, New Horizons, Mayo Clinic Health System, UW-La Crosse and more.

“If reaching out, there is always safety planning available when you are speaking to an advocate,” Senn says. If an abuser is known to monitor calls or emails, seeking help in person may be safer, or if whereabouts are tracked, one can request services during a regular medical appointment. Many domestic abuse advocacy websites also have privacy features.

Seeking help is a crucial first step, but the effects of abuse last long after successfully leaving a situation.

“The trauma from these abusive relationships can have both mental and physical impacts for years to come,” Senn says, adding counseling, whether individual or group, can help individuals work through that trauma.

Gundersen’s 24-hour Domestic Violence and Sexaul Assault Program crisis hotline can be reached at 608-775-5950 or 800-362-9567, ext. 55950.

Emily Pyrek can be reached at

"The pandemic has thrown many of the most vulnerable people in our society into especially challenging circumstances."

Thomas Abt, director of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice

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"Our definitions of safety are not the same as everyone else's. You may think, 'Why don't they just leave?' But maybe for somebody in an abusive relationship, having a roof over their head or having food for their children or knowing where that abusive person is at is safer than moving out or leaving the relationship."

Chelsey Senn, lead victim advocate for Gundersen Health System's Domestic Violence and Sexaul Assault Program

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