Radiology Study Suggests 'Horrifying' Rise in Domestic Violence During Pandemic
X-ray evidence points to pandemic lockdowns triggering a surge in cases of domestic violence.
Data from a major Massachusetts hospital found a significant year-over-year jump in intimate partner violence cases among patients -- nearly all women -- who sought emergency care during the COVID-19 pandemic's first few weeks.
"This data confirms what we suspected," said study co-author Mardi Chadwick Balcom. "Being confined to home for a period of time would increase the possibility for violence between intimate partners."
And the new study probably exposes "only the tip of the iceberg," said co-author Dr. Bharti Khurana, as it focused only on patients who sought emergency care at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and reported being a victim of domestic abuse.
Balcom is senior director of community health intervention and prevention programs at the hospital. Khurana is head of its trauma imaging research and innovation center.
The study focused on results of radiology scans at the hospital between March 11 and May 3 -- the nine-week period after Massachusetts Gov. Charles Baker declared a state of emergency and closed schools in response to COVID-19.
The scans identified 26 patients with injuries consistent with either superficial wounds or serious abuse.
That number was nearly equal to the 27 identified at the hospital during the same weeks in 2018 and 2019 combined. It also exceeded the 15 cases of physical abuse treated in 2017.
During spring 2020, the hospital treated 28 serious domestic abuse injuries (with some patients sustaining more than one). Such "deep" injuries resulted from strangulation, stabbing, burns and/or the use of knives or guns, the study reported.
Five victims of severe abuse were identified in 2020, compared to one in each of the three previous years.
The study was published Aug. 13 in the journal Radiology.
While deeply troubling, Khurana acknowledged that the findings are from one institution and might not apply more broadly.
Still, Balcom noted they are concerning. "Isolation is a big risk factor in [intimate partner violence and] COVID-19 has increased isolation both physically and socially for so many people," she said.
The findings dovetail with concerns about pandemic-related domestic abuse expressed in April by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.
"We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19, but they can trap women with abusive partners," Guterres said at the time. "Over the past weeks, as the economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying surge in domestic violence.
"For many women and girls," he added, "the threat looms largest where they should be safest, in their own homes."
Barbara Paradiso, director of the Center on Domestic Violence at the University of Colorado, Denver, echoed that thought.
"When a victim is required to stay in a home without access to the usual outlets that help to reduce tension [such as] time apart when at work, opportunities to visit friends or family, a private place to reach out for help -- the opportunity for violence naturally rises," noted Paradiso, who wasn't part of the study.
Stress stemming from the pandemic itself probably contributes as well, she added.
"The person choosing to use violence -- the perpetrator -- employs violence as a tool to establish and maintain power and control over their partner," Paradiso explained. "That need for power is, in part, a reflection of the lack of power they feel over their environment. COVID has brought with it just about every uncertainty any of us can imagine: Will we lose our jobs? Be furloughed? When will be allowed to go back to work or school? Can I make my rent payment? And on and on."
The uncertainty is likely to hit abusers hard, Paradiso said.
"That lack of control each of us are feeling is likely to be amplified for the abuser, and so they amplify their violence," she said.
Many shelters and safe homes have had to move people into hotels to comply with COVID-19 guidelines, so space for domestic abuse victims can be limited. But help is available, Balcom said.
"Hotlines and domestic violence programs are operating," she said. Those who need help should contact their local program for support or reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Its website -- thehotline.org -- also has information about local resources.
"Even if leaving home and going to a shelter is not what a survivor wants to do, the staff at safe home programs are great to talk with," Paradiso said. "They can provide support, help you to develop a plan to better keep yourself and your children safe, and connect you to lots of valuable resources in the community."
There's more about support for people experiencing abuse at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCES: Bharti Khurana, M.D., director, Trauma Imaging Research and Innovation Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston; Mardi Chadwick Balcom, J.D., senior director, Community Health Intervention and Prevention Programs, Center for Community Health and Health Equity, Brigham and Women's Hospital; Barbara Paradiso, M.P.A., director, Center on Domestic Violence, University of Colorado, Denver; Radiology, Aug. 13, 2020, online