Domestic violence risk grows during pandemic

Row of houses.

As the statewide order to stay at home helps reduce Minnesotans’ exposure to the coronavirus, two University of Minnesota researchers see a different risk cropping up.

“This is the perfect storm for sexual and domestic violence, unfortunately,” says Ruby Nguyen, associate professor of epidemiology and community health in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

Nguyen and Lynette Renner, associate professor of social work in the College of Education and Human Development, are investigating how best to provide sexual and intimate partner/domestic violence services in Minnesota during an unprecedented time when the need for them is rising, but resources are dwindling.

Intimate partner/domestic violence can take many forms, from verbal abuse and controlling behaviors to physical or sexual assault. Financial troubles, family responsibilities, and substance abuse all increase the risk.

While increased domestic violence is common during natural disasters and economic recessions, Nguyen says the pandemic creates a unique situation because so much time is spent in the home.

“What a pandemic does is provide all the risk factors for increased violence,” she says.

To address this unique situation, Nguyen and Renner will first gauge the current needs of Minnesota organizations that provide domestic or sexual violence services. These are often community-based nonprofits.

Next, the researchers will collect data on the number and types of requests for assistance. Using that information, they’ll begin to shape strategies for better serving people across the state.

Nguyen’s public health expertise will help the team understand the risk factors, while Renner’s social work experience will aid them in understanding the needs of service providers and how to advocate for policy changes.

Together, their work will help legislators decide how to fund domestic and sexual violence services going forward.

“Agencies have said that they are ill prepared for an emergency, whether a natural disaster, a drastic slash in funding, or another round of COVID,” Nguyen says. “We would hope that they feel more prepared for the next time, if it happens.”