Opinions and Legal Insights

‘Sheltering in Place’ Fueled Domestic Violence: Study

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a 7.5 percent increase in calls to the police to report domestic violence during March, April and May of this year, according to a new study released by the Council on Criminal Justice.

The study, “Sheltering in Place and Domestic Violence,” examined data on calls for service to the police in 14 large American cities, comparing domestic violence reports before and after the pandemic began, relative to trends during the same period in 2019.

“Our estimates suggest that the pandemic has led to, on average, 3.4 more domestic violence calls per city every day during the first five weeks after social distancing began,” said the study authors.

“If the entire U.S. experienced a similar increase, the result would be about 1,330 more domestic violence calls each day.”

The stressors could be financial vulnerability, “restructured living patterns including more time at home,” unemployment, and “general stress” surrounding the pandemic and uncertainty about the future.

“The best available evidence tells us that these conditions have the potential to increase domestic violence.”

The biggest increase came during the first five weeks after widespread social distancing began, when domestic violence calls were up 9.7 percent.

“State-mandated stay-at-home orders and school closures came later, suggesting the increase was not only a response to shelter-in-place policies,” according to the study.

The increase came across “a broad range of demographic and socioeconomic groups,” and includes households without a recent history of domestic violence calls, said the study.

In fact, one of the key findings is larger effects on city blocks without a previous domestic violence call, meaning new households contributed to the overall increase.

Interestingly, effects seemed to be larger on weekdays compared with weekends, which the authors suggested is consistent with increased time at home together, “especially during hours when adults may be trying to work from home and/or help children with schoolwork, playing a role.”

The authors wrote that they accounted for the fact that data from previous years also show an uptick in calls in the spring.

“Domestic violence calls are not a perfect measure of domestic violence incidents,” the study authors said.

“If victims find it more difficult to report during the pandemic because their abusers spend more time at home, then our analysis would understate the increase in domestic violence.”

On the other hand, third party reporting could increase due to more neighbors being at home and becoming aware of abuse.

“To test for this, we compare effects in areas with lots of multi-unit housing (where
neighbors are likely to hear more through shared walls) to places with less multi-unit housing. The results for the two subgroups are nearly identical, suggesting that our findings are not just picking up an increase in reporting by neighbors. ”

The authors estimated that “immediate medical and productivity costs and
the long-run negative impacts on earnings associated with such an increase could cost society tens of millions of dollars each day.”

The study found that the increase in domestic violence was at least partially reversed starting in the middle of April, which coincided with the first wave of CARES Act stimulus checks.

“We cannot say conclusively whether financial relief caused domestic violence rates to drop—our data also shows that social distancing compliance began to wane around the same time—but our results point to the importance of future work on this question.”

The study was presented to the CCJ’s National Commission on Criminal Justice and COVID-19 by Emily Leslie, assistant professor of Economics, Brigham Young University; and Riley Wilson, assistant professor of Economics, Brigham Young University.

The full study can be read here.

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.