Texas Researchers Find ‘Short-Term Spike’ in Domestic Abuse Following Lockdown

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Illustration by Sergio Santos via Flickr

A Texas study found a “short-term spike” in domestic violence in Dallas in the immediate weeks following the city’s shelter-in-place order, but only limited evidence linking the increase specifically to the pandemic-caused lockdown.

The study, released Tuesday by the University of Texas at Dallas, focused on family abuse incidents reported to the Dallas Police Department over a 118-day period between January 1 and April 27.

It found a 12.5 percent increase immediately after authorities mandated a city-wide stay-at-home order on March 24, and a comparative decrease after the first two weeks.

Although the study focused on only one metropolitan area, it represented one of the first quantitative analyses in a specific time frame of the pandemic’s impact on Intimate Partner Violence (IPV).

Experts in the U.S. and overseas, including at the United Nations, have warned of a “surge” in IPV cases directly tied to the quarantines imposed by the pandemic, but the study supported a more cautious assessment.

“While it may be true that domestic violence is higher (on average) after March 24 than before, it is difficult to directly and solely attribute the higher average count of incidents to the stay-at-home order,” the researchers wrote.

“The…finding of a short-term increase could be due to the fact that people were already voluntarily staying at home in the days prior to the March 24 order because of [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and public health officials warnings of the dangers of this new virus, and because of city, county and state orders to limit social gatherings.”

The study coincided with the release of figures by Dallas police showing a steady, but small rise in the number of domestic violence cases, from 918 in February to 1,169 in April, and to 1,202 in the first two weeks of May. The apparent discrepancy between the study’s finding of a decrease in mid-April and the official figures showing a continued rise through May was not explained.

Nevertheless, cautioning that their analysis was limited by the time framework of their study, the authors suggested “some of that short-term spike seems to be associated with what appears to be an upward trend of domestic violence crimes that was already occurring prior to the stay-at-home order.”

The study will be published in full in the American Journal of Criminal Justice this summer, but the results were made public this week.

Many advocates around the world have warned of a rise in the abuse of children, the elderly and spouses as families came under stress from unemployment, economic uncertainty or just the fact of being confined to close quarters.

“We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19, but they can trap women with abusive partners,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said last month.

“Over the past weeks, as the economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying surge in domestic violence.”

The United Nations Population Fund has estimated a 20 percent increase in IPV around the world in the first three months of quarantine, and predicted that COVID-19 would be responsible for at least 15 million additional cases.

At the same time, other experts have warned that as the economic and psychological stress caused by the crisis intensified, reports of domestic violence might actually decrease because of fear by spouses that reporting abuse would only exacerbate further violence at home when there was no escape, particularly when outside counselling or shelter were unavailable.

The data collected in the Texas study could also support the second hypothesis.

“We relied on official records and have surely missed out on other domestic incidents that did not come to the attention of the police department, which we suspect is a larger—but uncertain number,” they wrote.

However, while they acknowledged that the data suggested the lockdowns had some impact, they concluded there was no evidence to suggest that “the stay-at-home order was the sole cause of that short-term spike.”

They said more research was necessary to get an accurate assessment of the health crisis’ impact over time on domestic violence.

“Like crime, we will likely be living with COVID-19 for the rest of our lifetimes,” the study said. “It is incumbent on the community of scholars to continue to track its adverse effects on persons and their lives throughout the world.”

The authors of the study were Alex R. Piquero, Jordan R. Riddell and Nicole Leeper Piquero of the University of Texas at Dallas; Stephen A. Bishopp of the Dallas Police Department; Chelsey Narvey of Sam Houston State University; and Joan A. Reid of the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.

Additional reading: Oklahoma Classifies Domestic Abuse Crimes as Violent

For a copy of the forthcoming study, please contact Prof. Alex Piquero at apiquero@utdallas.edu  

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