Early Days of Pandemic
In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading nationwide, measures were put in place to mitigate the horrendous effects of the virus. Except for essential businesses, most businesses closed. A record number of schools transitioned to a virtual platform. People were advised to stay at home and social distance; church activities no longer met in person, and various other measures were instituted. These measures did slow down the spread of the virus and doubtless saved many lives, but numerous unintended consequences occurred as a result. Unfortunately, domestic violence including child abuse, increased.
Help Sara Virtual Conference
I attended the virtual Help Sara Virtual Conference at East Tennessee State University on August 7, 2020. Andrew Campbell, a very engaging and informative speaker, discussed domestic violence, child abuse, and intimate partner violence (IPV). Even though I have read several articles that discussed the fact that abuse substantively increased during the pandemic, it was not until I attended this conference that I began to understand how grave the situation is. Domestic abuse, including child abuse, is an important issue worldwide. Closer to home, in Appalachia, as in the rest of the country, intimate partner violence (IPV) and child abuse have been an appalling problem for years. According to Andrew Campbell, before COVID-19, domestic violence affected thirty to forty percent of families in the child welfare system. Fifty percent of calls to law enforcement were for domestic violence as well as thirty-five percent of hospital emergency department visits. For many people and families affected by domestic violence, staying home during the pandemic may not be safe.
Reports of Abuse Decrease
As the country shut down in response to the pandemic, domestic violence shelters scurried to make provisions for a surge in clients. Contrary to what one would think, in many locations in Appalachia, similarly to the rest of the nation, reports of abuse drastically decreased while much of the nation was under “stay at home” orders. Unfortunately, it was not because the abuse was occurring less. It was quite the opposite. People who work with domestic abuse and child abuse victims became extremely alarmed when calls to report abuse drastically decreased as the country went into shut down. A perfect storm, detrimental for domestic abuse victims was brewing. Before COVID-19, there were various avenues to report domestic and child abuse. Schools accounted for twenty-five percent of the reports; medical facilities, thirteen percent; social services, fifteen percent; and friends and neighbors for twenty-three percent of domestic and child abuse reports.
Storm is Brewing
Furthermore, as schools transitioned to a virtual format, and children were no longer physically in the classroom, that source of reporting disappeared. Social workers were no longer making in-person visits, but they relied on telephone and telehealth. Many people afraid of contracting COVID-19, stayed away from medical facilities. Churches canceled in-person functions, libraries closed, thus taking away internet sources and places of refuge for many people in rural locations. Parents who were able to work from home now had the added stress of supervising their children in virtual school. Families were thrust together in close spaces and had little alternatives to leave. Abuse victims remaining under the watchful eyes of their abusers were unable to make telephone calls. Also, they may have used all their wireless minutes and been unable to make calls.
At the same time, as many avenues for reporting abuse disappeared during the shutdown, almost all of the risk factors for domestic abuse became magnified. Increasing stress due to job loss, a decrease in income, decreasing social support, fear, and anxiety about catching the virus, and an increase in substance abuse have all increased dramatically. Families are forced into spending more time together than before the pandemic.
How Does This Affect Appalachia?
How does this affect us here in the Appalachian region? Although domestic violence and child abuse occurs across the nation and the world, Appalachia has some increased risk factors. It is predominately rural, which is a risk factor for abuse. Geography and physical distances from services, as well as limited resources in some areas, may complicate obtaining help in the Appalachian region. Much of Appalachia is rural and often residents here lack reliable transportation. Before the pandemic, Appalachia suffered from many severe socio-economic problems as well as high health disparities, which all are risk factors for child abuse. Our high rate of substance abuse is also a contributing factor. All of these issues have only drastically multiplied because of the pandemic.
Pandemic Has No End in Sight
Currently, as the virus surges in many locations, different business closures and stay at home orders may be imposed once again. As this school year has begun, many school systems have decided to conduct classes virtually for the foreseeable future and likely for the rest of the year. Fear continues to be rampant concerning the virus and its effects. This toxic stress has no end in sight. Even while the country continues to open, the pandemic continues to spread, further increasing stress and fears. The associated stress concerning the future of the economy takes a big toll on individuals.
Please Be Vigilant Concerning Abuse
Now more than ever, we need to be diligent to check on our friends and neighbors. Raising awareness of this problem is one of the first steps that need to be taken. Talking openly about this issue is very important, especially now with the increased stresses of the pandemic. New community partnerships need to be formed to spread awareness of this issue and to find novel ways to detect and intervene in abusive situations. Social media should be used to communicate information about shelters and encourage victims to reach out for help. Teachers need to be vigilant to notice changes in behavior or school performance and check on these children, either by a phone call or possibly dropping by to check on them even while maintaining social distancing. It is imperative that we become more aware and sensitive to the increase in domestic violence, child abuse, and intimate partner violence, especially as COVID-19 and all of its increased stress continue to overwhelm our society.