Last March, as COVID-19 spread throughout the United States and lockdown policies were enacted, researchers and advocates working in domestic violence prevention noticed an odd trend.
“Immediately after the lockdown, we saw a precipitous decrease in folks reaching out for help,” says Margo Lindauer, associate clinical professor of law and director of the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University.
The same scenario was playing out in other parts of the country. Lindauer and her colleagues knew the drop in calls was not a good sign. It meant that people weren’t getting the help they needed.
Victims of domestic violence tend to seek assistance at community health centers, hospitals, faith-based organizations, homeless shelters, and schools. Many of these sites shuttered completely, or were open only sporadically, during the early lockdown phase of the pandemic.
“People did not know how to access help or could not access help safely because they were cohabitating with their abusers or weren’t allowed to leave,” says Lindauer, who holds joint appointments in the Northeastern University School of Law and Bouvé College of Health Sciences.
In response to this new challenge, Lindauer and Morgan Wilson, a legal fellow at the Domestic Violence Institute, developed a variety of technology interventions to reach their clients. First, they created an intake form on their website, which is complete with an “escape site” button. This allows users to quickly exit the site at any time, should they need to protect themselves from the watchful eyes of an abuser.
Wilson also has started providing clients with comprehensive education and training on technology safety. As people all over the globe have become increasingly reliant on technology, both for work and to stay connected with friends and family, there are more ways than ever before for abusive partners to track, harass, manipulate, control, and spy on their victims.
“We get clients who say things like, ‘I have no idea how this person got into my Facebook account. I changed my password.’ But they’re using a shared home computer and there might be a keylogger or some other type of spyware or malware,” Wilson explains, referring to computer software that can be installed to record keystrokes and other data. She educates her clients on tools they can use to better maintain their privacy, such as messaging apps like Signal or Whatsapp that allow for disappearing messages.
Wilson also recommends “vault apps,” such as KeepSafe or Gallery Lock, to her clients. Upon first glance, these might appear to be simple calendar or calculator applications, but when the user punches in a code, the app allows for safe and private storage of files, photos, and messages.
“The app is innocuous on its face, so if an abusive party is looking at your phone, they won’t immediately know what it is,” Wilson says. These are just a few examples of the larger technology safety education Wilson has provided to more than 100 clients since July.
The pandemic also has exacerbated the need for victims of domestic violence to access safe and stable housing. In response, Lindauer reached out to her network, many of whom are former Northeastern students, and raised more than $150,000 to house eight different families in hotels for one to three months at a time.
“We know that when people are safely housed, they’re able to think more clearly about their options and make decisions not out of fear or trauma, but based on what is in their best interest,” Wilson says.
In a perspective paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Lindauer and her colleagues write that intimate partner violence during COVID-19 is a “pandemic within a pandemic.” And while domestic violence affects everyone, Lindauer says research has shown that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities and other marginalized individuals tend to be disproportionately affected. These are also the groups that experienced higher job losses and health issues during the pandemic.
“Both in terms of lives lost from contracting COVID-19, but also those who are dealing with the harsh realities of domestic violence and have lost jobs and are facing unemployment—they’re all the same individuals,” Lindauer says.
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