Domestic Violence Victims Face Increased Risk During Pandemic

Nation-wide stay-at-home orders, aimed to protect the public from COVID-19, created a worst-case scenario for many domestic violence victims, who were left trapped with their abusers and unable to seek help during a time of added stress and isolation and depleted resources.

Before the pandemic, one in four women and one in ten men reported experiencing domestic violence each year, and people of color and other marginalized groups are disproportionately affected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“A reason that we should all really care about this is that it’s everywhere — it really is everywhere,” said senior Marissa Moore. She said her experiences being sexually assaulted in high school and interning at a domestic violence shelter gave her insight into the prevalence and impact of crimes against women. “A lot happens behind closed doors that you are very unaware of, and it doesn’t always leave marks that you can see.”

A Legal Perspective:

Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, is defined as “a pattern of many behaviors directed at achieving and maintaining power and control over an intimate partner, such as physical violence, emotional abuse, isolation of the victim, economic abuse, intimidation, and coercion and threats,” according to the American Bar Association. In many jurisdictions, including California, however, it also includes misdemeanors and felonies against relatives. 

Pepperdine’s Restoration and Justice Clinic provides legal representation for victims of domestic violence and other gender-based crimes in both criminal and civil cases. Director Tanya Cooper  said the clinic seeks to help victims safely escape gender-based violence while raising awareness and improving the system


Tanya Cooper, professor and director of the Restoration and Justice Clinic, supervises law students as they provide civil and criminal remedies for victims of domestic violence and other gender-based crimes. She said the Clinic aims to empower its clients to make their own decisions regarding their case. Photo courtesy of Tanya Cooper

“The goal of helping individual people is to empower them with information and options to make the best decision for themselves,” Cooper said. “We don’t tell them what to do, but we tell them what they can do and let them decide.”

Although many victims do not want to prosecute their perpetrators, Cooper said civil legal aid is generally more effective than criminal legal aid in protecting victims because the prosecutor represents them rather than the government, sentencing is often more harsh compared to an anger management or batterer intervention program and victims are able to petition for restraining orders.

Proving domestic violence is challenging for all victims — involving photos, videos or audio recordings, text messages, medical records and/or witnesses — but Cooper said the criminal justice system often holds women of color to a higher standard. They typically need to prove more severe abuse with more extensive evidence than white victims and often still do not prevail. 

“The cases in which the clinic has not been successful in helping a victim of domestic violence get a restraining order — all instances were on behalf of people of color, so that’s something that is very troubling,” Cooper said. “That racial bias exists is pretty well documented in this area, so it shouldn’t be surprising but it’s still disturbing.”

Caruso School of Law students, participating in one of Pepperdine’s clinical education programs, stand outside the Santa Monica Courthouse. Students learn to provide legal aid for domestic violence victims. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Audibert / Pepperdine Caruso School of Law.

The role of the criminal justice system in protecting domestic violence victims and holding perpetrators accountable has long been debated, Cooper said; domestic violence has not always been illegal, as the court was initially reluctant to involve itself in the family sphere.

“The outcomes for victims are not as good as probably the law intended for them to be,” Cooper said. “We’ve evolved a lot since then and seen greater involvement of law enforcement and the criminal justice system in eradicating domestic violence, but in some of the dynamics, our victims will lose control.”

The primary pieces of legislation that protect women from domestic violence are the mandatory prohibition against owning a fire arm and the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which the House reauthorized Wednesday to provide resources for victims.

A Shelter Perspective:

At the beginning of the pandemic, domestic violence hotlines prepared for an increase in calls, but many organizations experienced the opposite — some even experiencing a 50% decrease, according to an article from The New England Journal of Medicine

Julie Nameth, a hotline volunteer for Sojourn Shelter and Services — a resource listed on Pepperdine’s Title IX website and one of the shelters that has been able to remain open— said she and her fellow volunteers have received less calls in the past year not because domestic violence has decreased but because victims are unable to seek help due to the impacts of the pandemic.

“Victims are not free to make calls; they’re not safe to make calls,” Nameth said. “Those that are housed with the batterer have no way of contacting us.”

Sojourn Shelter and Services’ website provides information about domestic violence, explaining the prevalence of coercive control from the abuser. Pepperdine lists Sojourn, located in Santa Monica, as a resource for students. Photo courtesy of Sojourn Shelter and Services

Nameth said most of the calls she has received are from victims who have already left their abuser and are in need of shelter, support groups or legal services. Victims who do have an opportunity to seek help while confined with their abusers often call the police rather than a hotline. 

Police departments across the United States reported a 10 to 27% increase in calls related to domestic violence in March 2020 compared to March 2019, according to an article from The American Journal of Emergency Medicine. The pandemic may make filing police reports more difficult, and BIPOC, who are more likely to experience police brutality, may be even less likely to contact the police during instances of escalated violence, according to the same The New England Journal of Medicine article

A Student Perspective:

Known on campus for being outspoken about violence against women, Moore said she is aware that her peers at Pepperdine have likely experienced domestic violence and encourages others to educate themselves about the issue so they can be active bystanders.

“I’m just so passionate about it because it’s everywhere and it’s so intrusive and it’s so hurtful and its impacts last a lifetime,”  Moore said.

Senior Marissa Moore said she is known on campus for being outspoken against gender-based crimes. Moore interned at a domestic violence clinic in her hometown in summer 2019. Photo courtesy of Marissa Moore

Moore said she finds the prevalence of domestic violence frightening but the lack of awareness and reporting even more frightening. Many warning signs of domestic violence, such as depression and isolation, are more common during the pandemic, which can make recognizing the issue in loved ones even more difficult.

“Even when they aren’t isolated from the rest of their community — even when they have jobs and they have friends — it is still so difficult to handle domestic violence,” Moore said. “I can only imagine how much scarier and how much more difficult it would be to leave these situations when they’re completely cut off from the rest of their community — which is what COVID really has done.”

Moore said she appreciates Pepperdine’s Title IX and the Counseling Center’s services and believes they do a good job of educating students and providing resources for survivors. The University provides students with supportive measures, and those who pursue a formal complaint can initiate either an informal resolution process or a formal grievance process. Moore said the University and all other institutions are responsible for ensuring their policies best suit the needs of the victim.

“It’s something that always needs to be growing and always needs to be changing and evolving and something that we always need to pay attention to,” Moore said.

Moore said the U.S. criminal justice system reflects society’s attitudes toward crimes against women. 

“There’s something to be said for the fact that these laws and the protection for survivors haven’t been around that long,” Moore said. “We just don’t hold perpetrators accountable in the ways that we should, and I think that’s really, really traumatic for survivors and it’s also really problematic because it will continue happening.” 

Domestic violence victims or active bystanders can call 911 or the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Infographic by Makena Huey