The pandemic created a “perfect storm” for Black women at risk of domestic violence
Starr Davis was smitten when she met a handsome stranger with flawless skin and a wide smile during a brief trip to Houston in March 2020. He was charming and persistent; she gave him her phone number and they started talking.
Their whirlwind romance took a major turn when she told him that she was pregnant. His aggressive behavior started to make her uncomfortable. But he was the father of her child. So, with some reservations, she packed up her life in New York City and moved to Texas. She hadn’t had much of a relationship with her own dad—maybe things could be different for her firstborn.
Being able to work remotely at her job at the onset of the covid-19 pandemic made the transition easier. She got an apartment and he moved in, and she hoped for the best. But he became physically abusive a few weeks in and then forbade her from setting foot outside. He’d say it was to protect her and their unborn child from covid. With no friends or close family nearby for support, she suffered in silence, her partner watching her every move. Oftentimes her only refuge was hiding out in the small walk-in closet in their bedroom.
“I took naps in the closet. I cried in the closet,” Davis tearfully recalls. “I tried to kill myself in the closet.”
Davis suspects her abuser’s challenges predated their relationship. But she believes the stresses of the pandemic exacerbated them. And she suspects those circumstances affected her decision-making too. “If there was not a pandemic going on, I would have left,” she says. “I definitely would have left.”
Covid seems to have made things worse for many women experiencing violence at home. Data on domestic violence during the pandemic is hard to come by—especially since cases often go unreported. But anti-domestic-violence advocates point to dramatic increases in calls to shelters and support groups.
Many care workers see indications that this increase in domestic violence seems to have disproportionately affected Black women like Davis. The health and financial challenges of the pandemic, which also disproportionately affected Black women, likely made the situation worse by creating a pressure cooker of stressors related to health and housing, employment, and financial insecurity.
Jacqueline Willett, a licensed clinical social worker, describes the pandemic as a “perfect storm” that left many women, including Black women, feeling trapped in their homes, unable to escape their abusers. “A lot of folks have been made to stay or remain in the home with folks who are violating them,” says Willett, who until earlier this year served as intake and well-being coordinator for Coburn Place in Indianapolis, which offers transitional housing and other support for domestic violence survivors.
It was difficult to seek and find support, especially in the early days of the pandemic. Many women were afraid of contracting covid, says Kandee Lewis, CEO of Positive Results Center, a nonprofit in Gardena, California, that focuses on preventing domestic violence and sexual assault. And in some cases there was nowhere for them to go. “Because isolation orders were in place, there were many doors closed to victims,” she says. “We know the violence continued, in some cases escalating.”
As the pandemic continued, some organizations found ways to use technology to safely reach people stuck at home. Others expanded their capacity or created new services, including apps and secure messaging channels, in response to special needs that emerged during the pandemic.
But more than two and half years after the pandemic began, there remains a significant gap between the needs of Black women experiencing domestic violence and the care they’re able to access. “We will see the fallout of the hidden abuse for years to come,” Lewis says.
Editor’s note: If you live in the US and are experiencing domestic violence, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline through their website, by texting START to 88788, or by calling 1-800-799-7233.
A “perfect storm”
Even before the pandemic, Black women faced a crisis of violence. Data from a 2017 study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that Black women were significantly more likely than white women to be killed by an acquaintance. More than half of all homicides among women—about 55%—were related to intimate partner violence, or IPV (domestic violence perpetrated by a spouse or romantic partner). And a report by a gun safety advocacy group, based on FBI data from the years 2013 to 2017, found that Black women were twice as likely to be shot and killed by an intimate partner as white women—and Black women between the ages of 18 and 34 were almost three times as likely. US Census data suggests that the pandemic affected Black households more than white households in terms of the cumulative effects of job loss, food insufficiency, and financial insecurity.
Economic and health disparities can put someone at greater risk for domestic violence and make it harder to get help, says Karma Cottman, who helms the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community (also known as Ujima), based in Washington, DC. “What we saw, and to some degree still are seeing, are the layers of vulnerability that exist for Black women and for the Black community that were underscored by the pandemic,” Cottman says.
It is unclear how many Black women have been affected by domestic violence during the pandemic. But support advocates see an alarming signal in FBI statistics, which showed a sharp increase in murders of Black women and girls. At least four Black women and girls were murdered per day in the US in 2020, adding up to 405 more murders than the previous year, according to those statistics.
Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, who is founder and president of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity, and Race in Mechanicsville, Virginia, says there is a troubling dearth of federal data available about the relationship between the pandemic and domestic violence, especially for people from marginalized groups.
Sharpe points out that the Household Pulse Survey, a weekly household survey distributed by the US Census Bureau to track the pandemic’s impact on American households, doesn’t include questions about people’s experience with violence.
A Census Bureau spokesperson says the agency does not track data on domestic violence directly and pointed to the US National Crime Victimization Survey compiled by the US Department of Justice. That survey suggests that rates of both domestic violence and intimate partner violence dropped in 2020 compared with 2019, but the survey also found that the proportion of reported cases of intimate partner violence fell from 58% to 41% over the same period. The survey also showed that Black people experienced higher rates of violent crime than white or Hispanic people, although the data on domestic violence specifically was not broken out by race.
A preliminary report from the CDC examined emergency room visits related to suspected cases of intimate partner violence, finding that they peaked just before the pandemic began and dropped by as much as a third in ensuing months. The authors acknowledge that covid mitigation measures may have played a role in the decline. And those figures were also not broken down by race or ethnicity. Collecting data in more detail is complicated, explains CDC spokesperson Cassie Strawn. “The main issue is related to accurately measuring IPV without compromising the safety, privacy, and confidentiality of IPV victims,” Strawn says.
For now, much of the information available on domestic violence against Black women is from nonprofits and government agencies that many women contacted directly for help. And many people working in those areas say they have seen a rise in cases or requests for help.
District court judge Katrina Ross, who oversees domestic violence cases in Jefferson County, Alabama, a jurisdiction that is 44% Black, says she observed an increase in domestic violence cases with Black women as victims during the pandemic. Coburn Place, the center in Indianapolis, which has a clientele that is more than 60% Black women, served 50% more people between March and December 2020 than it had in all of 2019, according to the Indianapolis Recorder.
And workers at Jenesse Center, a domestic violence intervention and prevention center in Los Angeles with a sizable clientele of Black women and children, say they saw a similar surge in 2020. At one point its staff was helping more than 200 additional people, forcing the team to offer overflow housing services at a local hotel. And they saw injuries “like we had never seen before” in both number and severity, says Charmine Davis, a clinical psychologist who leads Jenesse’s family wellness department.
At a time when Black women were likely more vulnerable to domestic violence, the pandemic also created unprecedented outreach challenges. Many organizations charged with supporting domestic violence survivors scrambled to find new ways to deliver services and perform outreach that was previously carried out in person at schools, houses of worship, and other public spaces.
Zoom, texting, chat and messaging apps, social media, and email became critical lifelines for those in need.
“We very rapidly kind of transitioned into being more creative in the way we provide services, doing things virtually,” says Angela Beatty, chief officer of domestic violence victim services for the YWCA in Oklahoma City. “So [we were] meeting with clients virtually, whether that be over the phone or through Zoom.”
Beatty’s staff set up Google Voice phone numbers and dedicated social media accounts to create more ways for their clients to safely communicate with their support team. In Los Angeles, the Jenesse Center doubled down on promoting its Jenesse4Hope smartphone app, which allows users to schedule counseling appointments, journal, and access a “get help” feature that dials 911 straight from the app if they have it open during an emergency.
Jamie R. Wright, a Houston-based Black mother of two grown daughters, believes a Zoom call saved her life after her new husband snapped one morning in April 2020. “He pushed me up against the bathroom sink, choking my neck. Then he hit me in the face,” she says.
Wright called the police after the violence continued, and the responding officers left pamphlets about nearby domestic violence support services. But it wasn’t until her pastor noticed her bruised and swollen face during a Zoom counseling session that she decided to leave. “In that moment, he told me I had to make the decision to value myself and my life and do what was best for me,” Wright says.
She drove to a nearby domestic violence shelter with only an overnight bag and ended up staying for three months until she saved up enough money to move into an apartment of her own. When Wright looks back, she can’t help but feel that covid played a role in her abuse. “I think that the stress of the pandemic in that moment made it easier for him to hit me,” she says.
Although some Black women like Wright were able to use technologies like Zoom and Google Voice to get help during the pandemic, advocates say better support is needed for those who do reach out. Lewis says many Black women who’ve received services from her organization have reported feeling mistreated and disrespected at some domestic violence shelters.
“As Black women, they [feel that they] are judged harsher, often made to feel like they traded one abuse for another,” says Lewis. “They report being asked stereotypical questions that women of other ethnicities are not.” The lack of culturally sensitive support that Black women report shows up in big and small ways. For example, many shelters fail to provide products that work best for Black women’s skin and hair.
Lewis and Willett of Coburn Place say some of those gaps in support could be addressed by more diversity training to help staffers learn about cultural differences and norms that may affect how Black women respond to abuse. For example, many have a very valid fear of involving law enforcement and social services agencies. Consider the case of Florida mother Marissa Alexander, who spent time in prison for firing a warning shot after her husband allegedly attacked and threatened to kill her.
“I’ve seen it myself, you know, where minority survivors will call for help and somehow get things switched on them, and now they have a case [against them],” says Willett of Coburn Place.
Starr Davis says she never felt comfortable calling the police out of fear she “might [end up] dead too” or get arrested. “It almost felt like a risk factor to call the police,” she says. But two months after her daughter’s birth, she summoned up the courage to leave her abuser, a complicated and terrifying process that she’s still amazed she survived. She has since relocated to another state, started a new job, and begun writing poetry. Therapy has helped her work through her painful experience and recognize internal issues that often keep Black women like her in abusive relationships, and she hopes speaking publicly about it will help others in similar situations.
“That ‘strong Black woman’ trope—yeah, I think that’s what pretty much what stops us from getting help,” she says. “Like, [we’re] just carrying that cross every time and not really knowing that it’s okay to just be vulnerable human beings that need help, just like anybody else.”
Chandra Thomas Whitfield is an award-winning freelance writer and multimedia journalist based in Colorado.
This article was supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation, a family foundation based in San Francisco and Los Altos, California, that works to advance sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners, and support human rights for all people.
It was published through MIT Technology Review’s covid inequality fellowships supporting journalism focused on the pandemic’s disparate impacts. For more on this topic, read about the racial disparities of long covid and Native communities that are using pandemic relief funds to upgrade their telecom networks.