Issues & Insights

It’s Time To Debunk The COVID-Domestic Violence Myth


Over the past year and a half, Americans have been subjected to a steady drumbeat of dire warnings that COVID stay-at-home policies were causing a dramatic “surge” in domestic violence. As early as March 2020, with the COVID pandemic looming, the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence issued an Alert with this startling claim: “Survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault are facing extreme danger and risk.”

A recent article in the Omaha World-Herald echoed the same theme.  Claiming an increase in the number of calls to its domestic violence hotline, Jannette Taylor of the Women’s Center for Advancement offered this explanation: “I think that the pandemic was sort of the impetus for all of this. People who are basically forced into mandatory quarantine with their abusers….The increase in domestic violence situations is happening across the country.”

But there are two major problems with Ms. Taylor’s claim. First, Nebraska never had a COVID “quarantine” or stay-at-home order, according to USA Today.  In fact, Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts declined to issue even a state-wide mask mandate

And second, there is no scientific evidence that links domestic violence to COVID stay-at-home policies. Five separate analyses have concluded that overall, there was no increase in domestic violence or sexual assault. And some locales saw a significant decrease.

The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice concluded, based on reports from 11 cities, that “Domestic violence did not increase in the first quarter of 2021 over the first quarter of 2020.”

Similarly, the Marshall Project found reductions in the number of domestic violence cases in the three cities that it studied: Chicago, IL (23% decline), Austin, TX (13% decline), and Chandler, AZ (18% decline).  And  The Coalition to End Domestic Violence compiled police reports from 33 police departments around the country, which revealed steady numbers of domestic violence calls in 19 departments, small increases in three departments, and modest decreases in 11 jurisdictions.

In 67 large cities across the country, the Major Cities Chiefs Association reported that during the first 9 months of 2020, the number of rapes dropped from 32,234 to 27,273, compared to 2019. This change represents a 15% decrease.

Finally, The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports on the number of answered calls, chats, and texts received each year. The graph from the most recent report reveals the number of answered inquiries in 2020 was 363,000, which is the same number as in 2018.  Clearly, there was no “spike” or “surge” in the number of abuse calls during the COVID pandemic.  

Even government agencies are promoting the COVID-abuse myth. According to a recent press release from the U.S. Department of Justice, “Domestic Violence Awareness Month is a sobering reminder of the harm domestic violence inflicts across our country, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic means that for many survivors, abuse may be compounded by being isolated with an abuser, loss of income and stress over the virus itself.”  

And during the October 5 Senate hearing on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, Sen. Amy Klobuchar made the implausible claim that domestic violence cases had risen 40% in Minnesota during the COVID pandemic. When I sent an email to Klobuchar’s staffer to provide the source for the claim, no answer was forthcoming.

Why would abuse rates be falling in many localities during the COVID pandemic? The most likely explanation comes from the Family Life Survey of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, which found that coping with the COVID threat has served to strengthen family relationships. 56% of survey respondents agreed that experiencing the pandemic “Has made me appreciate my partner more,” and 47% agreed that the coronavirus, “Has deepened my commitment to my relationship.” 

So why are so many promoting the COVID falsehood? The reason is not difficult to discern. In his Domestic Violence Awareness Month proclamation, President Joe Biden, the original author of the Violence Against Women Act, proposed a historic $1 billion for domestic violence grant programs, an amount that would double the current congressional appropriation. And what better way to convince chivalrous lawmakers than to sound the alarm about women in peril?

As commentator Corrine Barraclough revealed, “The myth that domestic violence is surging in lockdown will become one of the biggest lies the gendered narrative leans on for additional funding.” 

Edward Bartlett is the founder and a board member of the Coalition to End Domestic Violence.  He holds a Ph.D. in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University

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