TAMU-CC Researchers Suggest Solutions for Combating Rising Domestic Violence During COVID-19 Pandemic

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – As COVID-19 flares up in communities, domestic violence also is flaring up in households. A research team at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi is looking at this increase and exploring ways the community can come together to ensure the surge in domestic violence is reported and addressed.

“COVID-19 continues to plague communities globally with unforeseen implications of stay-at-home orders, leading to an increase in domestic violence and inabilities to report acts to the authorities,” said Dr. Beth M. Rauhaus, who co-authored a paper recently published in the academic journal American Review of Public Administration.

Rauhaus is an Associate Professor of Public Administration and Masters of Public Administration Program Coordinator. Her co-authors include Dr. Andrew F. Johnson, Assistant Professor of Management, and Dr. Deborah Ann Sibila, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice.

“While communities around the world have different forms of government and varying cultures, one common element to combating domestic violence is using a collaborative approach in communities,” Rauhaus said.

The research team urges government officials to become aware of trends in domestic violence so that in unusual circumstances, such as the current pandemic, an anticipated increase in reports may not occur due to a victim’s inability to report abuse if the abuser is always in the home due to stay-at-home orders or unemployment. The researchers found that victims of sexual assault and domestic violence may also fail to report these crimes for a number of reasons including feelings of shame, denial, intimidation, religious or cultural beliefs and practices, as well as fear of retaliation.

Researchers acknowledge that the attention of decision-makers can be hard to capture and resources are scarce but lessons from abroad show private organizations and businesses, such as pharmacies serving as safe havens for victims to report abuse, can help in all communities.

“It is imperative to work together to pool resources and provide a safe outlet for victims to report abuse,” Rauhaus said. “As the pandemic may continue or as state and local budgets are cut in response, the need for advocates to keep domestic violence at the forefront of issues will be imperative.”

Also playing a significant role in the decision-making process for victims are police attitudes and behavior, said the research team. Officers may express victim-blaming attitudes, perceive the violence as minor and police involvement as unnecessary, and require a higher standard of probable cause for these types of incidents. A need for an intermediary, or advocate, is evident in many cases.

Sibila is involved in advocate services through the Purple Door, a local organization working to empower the community and those affected by domestic violence and sexual abuse to transition to a safe and healthy environment. The Purple Door offers a 40-hour Sexual Assault Advocate training every quarter taught by Purple Door employees and community members. The course includes a two-hour block of sexual abuse training, taught by Sibila. It was presented last September-October for the first time in many years on the TAMU-CC campus.

The class, which started with 27 students, was the largest class the Purple Door ever had – with 18 students moving on to earn certificates after the class.

Sibila brings a lengthy career in law enforcement to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Over a 26-year span, she worked as a Military Police officer and as a Special Agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. She is teaching a class this semester on Intimate Relationship Violence, which covers male-female, same-sex, and even elderly and child abuse. In any abuse situation, the key driver is control.

“There is this relationship of trust,” Sibila said. “Here, the people who are the offenders are the very people who we think should be protecting us. So, it’s almost a double betrayal.”

In addition to violence and sexual abuse, Sibila said mistreatment can come in many forms of control – digital, psychological, emotional, financial, and even through abuse of pets.

Her Intimate Relationship Violence class includes a new section this semester on violence during COVID and other disasters, when abusers face other pressures.

“Now with COVID, they’ve lost jobs so who do they strike out at? Partners, children, etc.,” Sibila said. “Victims are trapped in the house with their abusers.”

In addition to outlining the problem of abuse during COVID, the researchers explored paths to solutions.

“Improving community collaborations and incorporating values of compassion, empathy, care, and ethics into emergency or strategic plans within individual agencies is key to ensuring public safety during a pandemic,” they wrote.

One way to increase abuse reporting may be to train postal workers, garbage collectors, food delivery workers, and public works officials who are traveling the neighborhoods throughout the pandemic and “have the opportunity to detect violence in the home and report their concerns to proper authorities.”

The team also suggests local partners could create an awareness campaign to let the public know ways to safely report abuse and educate victims of available services during the crisis.

“As new victims emerge during the pandemic, education and awareness will be essential in navigating available services,” they wrote. “Having public administrators, including street-level bureaucrats, incorporate values of social equity in their professional training and routine may be a useful strategy in providing an outlet for victims unable to report abuse.”