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Partners and Crime
Covid-19 and the rise of domestic violence
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D’Asia Johnson was twenty-two, with perfect skin and wide, dark eyes. She worked at Macy’s; she wanted to be a teacher; she was kind. She lived in the Cypress Hills neighborhood of Brooklyn. It was no secret that she had a violent boyfriend—she was in an apartment she found with the help of HousingPlus, a service that provides women experiencing domestic violence with stable housing. But he was still in her life. Neighbors heard yelling, things being broken. “She used to say that he used to slam her head in the house,” one neighbor said. Another neighbor saw blood on the floor of the hallway after the two had a fight in the building lobby. He said the cops had been called to the apartment at least six times. Even after Johnson got a restraining order against her boyfriend, he showed up. In March, he was arrested for violating the order. He wasn’t held long, but by August, Johnson told her family at a gathering that she was finally done with him.

Then, in September, no one had seen D’Asia Johnson for a week. When neighbors detected a bad smell, they wondered about the garbage chute; but the super said he’d cleaned it. Some on Johnson’s floor of the apartment building suspected a dead rat. Johnson’s aunt asked the building’s security guards to check Johnson’s apartment. On September 21, they knocked on the door. Her ex-boyfriend answered and refused to let security into the apartment. By the time the police arrived, he was gone. But what he left behind was ghastly. Johnson’s home was covered in blood: it pooled on the floors, it spattered the walls. There was blood on a meat cleaver. Johnson’s body was found chopped into pieces and piled inside two suitcases.

The photo of her most often used by the media shows a lean young woman in a gray sweater, her high, right cheekbone turned toward the camera, her long hair in neat reddish braids. She is young and beautiful. She looks weary. “It’s a tragedy, but you can’t do anything if somebody doesn’t want to be helped,” a young male neighbor told the Daily Mail at the time of her death. Just over a week later, Johnson’s ex-boyfriend, twenty-four-old Justin Williams, was arrested, initially on other charges. In November, he was charged with her murder.

An old story, soon replaced in the news by the latest atrocity. In fact, in the United States, an estimated twenty people are physically abused by an intimate partner every minute, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. One in three women (and one in four men) have experienced physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. As the violence escalates, so does the rate of male perpetration: one in five women (and one in seventy-one men) has been raped; 72 percent of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner; 94 percent of these victims are female.

Politicians use rising crime as a talking point, but it’s almost always meant to scare voters about random violence by a shadowy criminal element. Yet intimate partner violence accounts for 15 percent of all violent crime. And in the almost three years of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been marked increases in domestic violence in countries around the world—up by 33 percent, according to some estimates. In New York, the reported incidence of domestic violence has risen by 30 percent. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control reported an 8 percent rise, but one expert said “8 percent was a floor, not a ceiling,” and that rates are likely higher than any current count we have. “While one in three white women report having experienced domestic violence [during the pandemic],” Erika Sussman, executive director of the Center for Survivor Advocacy and Justice, told Time magazine in February 2021, “the rates of abuse increased dramatically to about 50 percent and higher for those marginalized by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, citizenship status, and cognitive physical ability.” The United Nations has called domestic violence the “Shadow Pandemic.” Researchers at the International Journal of Law and Psychology have called it a “global public health priority.” Time magazine called it a pandemic within a pandemic.

Abuse of women has been heightened by Covid-19 because factors that increase abuse have heightened, including the isolation of women in their homes with their abusers—who have ample opportunity to control their movement, dress, and behavior—as well as economic precarity and financial dependence. Yet even though some cities reported increased calls to police, it also appears that, nationally, the underreporting of incidents was worse during the pandemic, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. Calls to some domestic violence hotlines declined at the start of the pandemic, likely, experts say, due to women’s inability to escape long enough to use the phone, to seek help. What hotlines didn’t register, hospital emergency rooms soon did: an increased number of injuries consistent with domestic violence were seen in some cities, along with a national increase in gun assaults in 2020.

Apathy toward women’s suffering and the socialized impulse to blame the victim have always accommodated and protected abusers. So have the myths surrounding domestic violence, like if women needed help they’d ask for it, or if they wanted to leave, they would. What began to change during the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s was attention. As domestic violence became more openly acknowledged, changes in laws followed. Battered women’s shelters became more prevalent. Law enforcement and social service agencies received new training. More women gained public office—and sometimes even Republican women leaders took the issue seriously. It began to look like there was a cumulative effect, as domestic violence statistics began to drop in the 1990s and 2000s alongside other crime stats. But what’s happened in the last three years suggests how entrenched the problem is—how violence continues to permeate modern life, lurking not far below the surface.

Too Little, Too Late

During the first month of lockdown in the United States, The Lancet published a literature review that examined the “psychological impact of quarantine.” What the researchers found is chilling. “Most reviewed studies reported negative psychological effects,” they write, “including post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger.” Their list of stressors includes: “longer quarantine duration, infection fears, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, inadequate information, financial loss, and stigma.” You can see why Covid-19 hit domestic violence like gasoline hits a fire.

Politicians use rising crime as a talking point, but it’s almost always meant to scare voters about random violence by a shadowy criminal element. Yet intimate partner violence accounts for 15 percent of all violent crime.

In her 2019 book, No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, Rachel Louise Snyder writes that domestic violence “sits adjacent to so many other problems we as a society grapple with: education, economics, mental and physical health, crime, gender and racial equality.” And abuse happens behind closed doors. Because it is seldom talked about, because it is rarely seen, the challenges of prevention and justice are magnified.

Prevention of domestic violence and justice for victims are relatively new efforts. Snyder wryly notes that “the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [sic] predates laws against cruelty toward one’s wife by several decades.” The first laws protecting women from spousal abuse weren’t passed until the 1980s, although divorce laws in some states acknowledged abuse as legitimate grounds for ending a marriage. It wasn’t until a 1988 amendment to the Victims of Crimes Act that compensation for crime included domestic violence victims.

“Thus far, however,” a 1996 report issued by the National Institute of Justice reads, “research and evaluation on arrest and prosecution, civil or criminal protection orders, batterer treatment, and community interventions have generated weak or inconsistent evidence of deterrent effects on either repeat victimization or repeat offending.” Domestic violence was so common that no one had yet bothered to figure out how to address it. “For every study that shows promising results, one or more show either no effect or even negative results that increase the risks to victims,” the report states.

Two events set change in motion. The first was the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and the trial of her football superstar ex-husband, O.J. Simpson, in 1994. “Nicole’s 911 tapes allowed listeners into a rare scene: a woman under siege by a man who claimed to love her,” Snyder writes, “If it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone.” The case, as it played out over nearly a year, captivated the public and brought “the threats, the coercion, the terror” that Brown Simpson experienced into the national spotlight. Of course, it helped that she was a wealthy white woman, widely assumed to have been killed and harassed by a Black man. Snyder tells us that calls to domestic violence hotlines and police exploded in the wake of Brown Simpson’s murder.

The second event was the passage of the Violence Against Women Act that same year, transforming violence from “a private family matter, a problem for women rather than the criminal justice system,” Snyder writes. The act had been introduced by Senator Joe Biden four years earlier; it appropriated funds for housing, advocacy positions, classes, and police and legal training, and paid for rape kits to be processed. The act also provided legal aid to victims, including those in communities of color who might otherwise have been ignored. Women of color experience domestic violence at the same rate as white women, but their experiences are often compounded by racial injustice. Suddenly, as the O.J. trial was closing, VAWA made federal funds available to victims of abuse, a potential new benefit to Black and brown women in danger.

And yet VAWA, which must be reauthorized every five years, is not without opponents. In 2012, reauthorization was held up by eight senators on the Judiciary Committee because they opposed three aspects of the act’s expansion: first, the inclusion of additional minority groups in the act’s coverage—extending resources to LGBTQ victims was a step too far for Republicans, who claimed to support VAWA without these expansions. Second, they objected to the increased number of U visas the act would provide to immigrant women trying to escape domestic violence in their home country. Third, the act sought to include Native women. Although about 40 percent of Native American women will experience domestic violence, their access to legal resolutions is erratic. More than half of Native women are married to non-Native partners, predominantly men who are not under the legal jurisdiction of Native law. As Adam Serwer wrote at Mother Jones at the time, “The current version of the Violence Against Women Act would allow tribal authorities to prosecute non-Indians for domestic violence cases on Indian reservations, but Republicans are opposing it because they don’t like the idea of Native American law applying to non-tribe members.” Nonetheless, the act was reauthorized in 2013.

Then it lapsed again in 2019. When Biden became president in 2021, a new effort was made for reauthorization. The process was again stalled by Republicans, who opposed an expansion that would prevent violent stalkers and boyfriends from owning firearms, thus closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” This change—the provision previously included only convicted spouses—was characterized by the NRA and Republicans as “a ploy by Democrats to erode Second Amendment Rights,” the Washington Post wrote in March 2021. As the bill passed the House, 172 Republicans voted no, with only 29 breaking ranks. By the time the act was finally passed in the Senate in March of 2022, the anti-gun provision had been removed.

A Family Affair

In explaining the persistence of domestic violence, Snyder notes the effects of addiction, poverty, toxic masculinity, and gun ownership, but also corrosive ideas about privacy and traditional family. The latter is another key to understanding the continued abuse of women. Domestic violence is in many ways a legacy of the obsession with the nuclear family that has aligned social conservatives and neoliberals since at least the middle of the last century. It was then that the welfare capitalism of the Great Society—domestic programs established by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration—met with the late 1960s Civil and Women’s Rights movements and 1970s inflation. This collision of concerns shaped the nation’s future dialogue about how social services should be structured and who was worthy of them.

Domestic violence is in many ways a legacy of the obsession with the nuclear family that has aligned social conservatives and neoliberals since at least the middle of the last century.

In her seminal 2019 book, Family Values, Melinda Cooper tells us that a partnership emerged between neoliberals and social conservatives, aimed at undermining social services for the sake of both fiscal savings and moral righteousness. If the family could be made responsible for supporting more costs for health care and home care, it would keep the emphasis on the sanctity of the traditional family and, most important, reduce the burden on the federal budget for social support.

The right-wing effort to dismantle forms of social insurance continues today, with constant calls to limit Social Security, to drown the federal government in the bathtub, to keep health care a personal, not state or federal, responsibility. Yet such causes were also advanced by Democratic President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. “The apex of this reaction and this turn against welfare,” Cooper said in a 2019 interview with The Dig podcast, “is to really instrumentalize it as a tool to morally discipline poor families.” This was a project Clinton believed in. Neoliberalism, under his direction, embraced the rhetoric of marriage promotion, of pushing women to find the fathers of their future children. Welfare reform under Clinton envisioned marriage as “the foundation of a successful society.”

What if that marriage was abusive, though? Women who experience domestic violence are often most vulnerable when they are in the process of leaving their abuser, or when they are pregnant—and, of course, another result of the “pro-family” political movement is that now more women are being forced into carrying pregnancies to term. Another major risk factor is unemployment (which is often higher among African American men). And victim-blaming makes it shameful for women to admit to others that the man they love has hurt them. One survivor who Snyder interviewed says, “I was profoundly embarrassed. You think of someone who’s poor, who’s uneducated, who doesn’t have resources. I thought if I could get him to change back, I wouldn’t have to tell people about it.”

Domestic violence is still considered a private matter. Coercive social concerns about broken homes and single parenting have worked only to minimize our perception of abuse, euphemistically labeling instances of extreme violence as “domestic disputes.” Many women must shut up and put up in order to stay near their children, trading assault for a roof over their heads. Once, several years ago, while reporting a story on homelessness in the Allentown area of Pennsylvania, I naively asked a physician’s assistant to explain to me why, in our rounds of various homeless encampments in the area, we had met so few homeless women. Yet everywhere there were men. “It’s easier for women to . . . make arrangements, to find a home to stay in,” he said and held my gaze. Trading sex for shelter and food has kept many women, who may not have jobs, their own money, or safe support, off the streets or out of such camps. But the trade-off is deadly. Still, according to Snyder, “anywhere from 25 to 80 percent” of homeless women have experienced abuse by partners.

Fifty women a month are killed by intimate partners—by guns alone. And ideas about the sanctity of marriage and the privacy of the domestic scene continue to abet this bloodshed. Democrats are only willing to work on compromises and half-measures, and they’re blocked even then by an intransigent right hung up on guns and ideas of traditional family.

The Price is Wrong

On the whole, the lockdowns during Covid saved lives, data shows. It would have been possible to mitigate other compounding effects, like the rise of domestic violence—our government just chose not to. “There are good reasons for lockdowns to protect public health, but we have to recognize the collateral and unintended impacts as well,” Mariana Yang of the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic at Harvard Law School told the Harvard Gazette in June of this year. “That’s not to say that we should not have lockdowns, but there must be more focus on the resources to address those secondary impacts as well.”

Fifty women a month are killed by intimate partners—by guns alone.

The Lancet researchers who studied the psychological impacts of quarantine suggested ways to mitigate these impacts: keep lockdowns as brief as necessary, clearly articulate the rationale for quarantine, and provide adequate supplies. They write, “Appeals to altruism by reminding the public about the benefits of quarantine to wider society can be favourable.” Our federal government missed the boat on this prescription, and some paid a higher price than others.

The pandemic was a blow to most of us, but it particularly damaged the lives and livelihoods of the poor, people of color, those who worked service jobs and couldn’t avoid exposure, and those at risk of domestic abuse.

The violence against women was appearing on the streets of my own neighborhood in Red Hook, Brooklyn. In January 2020,[*] Tatiana Walton was allegedly strangled and dragged out of a car by her boyfriend, Kelvin Philp. He left her, dead in the road, near the Red Hook Houses. She was twenty-seven and had worked at Century 21 and the Sunglasses Hut. She was the mother of a two-year-old with Philp. At the time of her death, Walton was visibly pregnant.

Her friend and former supervisor at work, Eva Salazar Fierro, told the New York Times that Walton’s relationship with Philp had been “very toxic,” that it was on again, off again, and that Walton would fall out of touch for long periods of time because her boyfriend was controlling. Philp was quickly arrested and charged with Walton’s murder, their child put into the custody of New York’s child welfare system.

And as I write today, the body of sixty-one-year-old Delma Mateo, who lived in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is only three days cold. She was stabbed to death by her boyfriend Felix Santiago, in the hallway of her apartment building. Santiago was found dead outside behind the building, likely by suicide. Neighbors and friends told local news outlets that the relationship was verbally abusive, with Santiago demeaning Mateo’s appearance. They said this often led to physical violence.

Only three months into the pandemic lockdown, New York State recognized the crisis of violence was accelerating—calls to the state’s domestic violence hotline were up 30 percent in April 2020 compared to the previous year. New programs for reporting incidents were announced in April of 2020 by then-governor Andrew Cuomo, who later resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment by several women. In May, the state launched a task force, headed by the Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa and the New York State Council on Women and Girls. It was asked to “find innovative solutions to this crisis.” The accompanying report, issued by the task force that June, is a list of the usual points: create more flexible funding sources, offer victims greater choice in housing, include cultural considerations in domestic violence situations, and end the requirement that women file a police report to qualify for domestic violence resources provided by the Victims of Crimes Act. It’s not a bad prescription for how to move state-connected agencies forward, and certainly the enactment of these recommendations, accepted by Cuomo, will help save lives.

The project was picked up by Cuomo’s successor, Kathy Hochul. The week after Mateo’s death, Hochul signed a suite of measures that aimed to protect victims of domestic violence, including the seizure of firearms from abusers who refuse to surrender them in defiance of a court order, and mandates for family courts to inquire about firearm possession when subjecting an abusive partner to an order of protection. Hochul has made domestic violence one of her key concerns as governor, citing her personal history. Her grandmother was emotionally and verbally abused by her grandfather when Hochul was young. Having grown up witnessing the effects of this abuse, “My mother became an advocate, a champion,” Hochul said at the event announcing the new domestic violence measures. “I do feel my mother’s spirit.”

Yet the scale of these efforts seems so profoundly underwhelming in the face of the data, and in the face of the dead women in our neighborhoods, on our streets, in our families. It’s difficult to believe the initiative will turn the crisis around. The Covid-19 domestic violence task force report was a Band-Aid that covered scrapes and bruises, not a solution for the anger, poverty, misogyny, and endemic violence that caused them.

Studies tally taxpayers’ financial costs for domestic violence each year at nearly $8 billion, a staggering figure that only begins to indicate the magnitude of the crisis in the United States. But the true cost is beyond dollars—beyond any calculation. The loss of Johnson, Walton, Mateo and countless other women has left families bereft, children unattended, men incarcerated, and entire communities upended. When women are brutalized into silence, there’s a sickness in our society that is as hard to eradicate as any airborne virus.

 

 


[*]  Correction: The original published version of this article included an incorrect date: the assault on Tatiana Walton occurred in January of 2020, not 2021.