The coronavirus crisis is also a domestic abuse crisis. Keep these tips in mind to cover it.

Published on
May 29, 2020

Since 2016, the Intimate Partner Violence unit in Tarrant County, Texas has been working to reduce homicides. Last year, the county’s intimate partner homicides were down to seven.

But since the pandemic took hold in March, the county has already had seven homicides related to intimate partner violence, said Allenna Bangs, the county’s assistant criminal district attorney and chief of the domestic violence unit.

“So that’s as many in this time period as we’ve had all year last year,” she said, speaking in a Center for Health Journalism Covering Coronavirus webinar.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone, but it has been particularly dangerous for those facing stay-at-home orders with their abusers. At the same time, many families are also experiencing the perfect storm of lost jobs, closed schools  and financial stress. Bangs joined reporters Deanna Paul of the Wall Street Journal and Adiel Kaplan of NBC National News to offer a deeper understanding of the situation, what governments and organizations are doing to address it, and how to report with nuance and sensitivity on this important story.

“When we come out on the other side of this, we’re going to be dealing with individuals who have experienced this in silence more so than before,” Bangs said.

Facing unprecedented stress

The pandemic is creating additional stress that could lead to more severe domestic violence incidents, Bangs said.

For example, there may be family conflicts over remote schooling and who’s watching the kids. There could be control issues over how to spend the government stimulus check. People who would normally be working are now home all day, leading to an uptick of drug use and day drinking.

Typically, domestic violence services see more referrals during the workday, when victims are outside the home and away from their abusers. Now, though, those opportunities are scarce. Sexual assaults that are reported in hospitals are declining, too, because people are avoiding them unless they have COVID-19-related concerns.

In times like this, the need for coordinated services is especially important, she said. Tarrant County was well positioned to tackle the current crisis because of the interdisciplinary approach they created more than four years ago. Since then, the country worked to better connect domestic violence services through agencies such as the police departments, the county hospital and housing support organizations.  

Another key ingredient they developed: a questionnaire for victims that could be used by authorities to gauge their risk of being killed by their partner and detect broader patterns of violence.

When the pandemic occurred, those established relationships enabled the team to quickly identify and reach out to individuals most at risk of committing domestic violence, such as alleged offenders out on bond and not in custody. 

Treading on sensitive ground                                                                                                                                           

Amid the growing crisis, Kaplan, an investigative reporter with NBC National News, started looking at what was happening on the ground at domestic violence shelters.

She contacted a national umbrella group, which connected her to dozens of shelters. With so many potential sources, she and colleague Wilson Wong sent these organizations a Google survey form with questions on topics such as call volumes and funding — a useful reporting tool, she said.

“I’m a big fan, especially if you’re trying to talk to a lot of people,” she said.

After reviewing the answers, they reached out to the shelters with the most compelling stories.

Kaplan at first submitted a draft that began with one shelter’s experience. Her editor suggested the story would be stronger with a victim’s own account. While Kaplan was doubtful a victim would want to be interviewed, she went back to the shelters to inquire.

One victim said she found it empowering to tell her story anonymously, a response that underscored how important it is not to have expectations on these projects, Kaplan said.

Still, if victims don’t want to share their stories, there are other ways of showing a human approach, such as sharing the personal experiences of frontline workers on trauma hotlines.

In some places, domestic violence calls were increasing, while in others, they declined significantly – something she attributes to the myriad stressors people are experiencing differently.

What they did hear consistently: There were more shorter, frantic calls, in which victims whispered in the closet while their abuser was in next room.

Many organizations described a groundswell of community funding and support in the short-term – especially as they cancelled annual spring fundraisers —but many still worried about the uncertain long-term economic future. 

A forward-thinking approach

When the stay-at-home orders began, the Wall Street Journal’s Deanna Paul, who was a prosecutor herself before turning to journalism, also thought about domestic violence: “For many, home is one of the more dangerous places.”

In her reporting, she reached out to front-line workers staffing the hotlines and text message lines as well as prosecutors seeing cases. She learned of callers who were scared to leave an unsafe situation because they didn’t want to expose an elderly parent to COVID-19.  She heard fears that jailed offenders would be released home amid the pandemic.

Paul said she tried to be forward-thinking in her coverage, asking: What are law enforcement and other agencies doing that is innovative?

Her reporting turned up new text message lines, cities renting hotel rooms for victims, and agencies providing pre-paid phones for survivors to use. Innovations have also come to a criminal justice system, such as remote filing for restraining orders.

“COVID fast-tracked changes that will stick around after the pandemic,” she said.  

Reporting with sensitivity

When reporting on domestic violence, sensitivity is essential, panelists said.

Bangs, the Texas prosecutor, said it’s important to trust victims to know their situation best. The highest risk of homicide comes when the perpetrator knows the victim is leaving. Bangs suggested connecting them with resources that can help them leave when they deem it’s safe.

As a public service, journalists should also consider including useful information in stories, such as numbers for phone or text message hotlines.

Another imperative: Figuring out how to tell someone’s story without putting them at risk.

Kaplan asks interview subjects to have a conversation with the expectation it will be anonymous. Before she publishes, she checks in again to make sure there aren’t any details that would give away their identity.

“It’s figuring out what the story is from the perspective of the people on the ground, gaining their trust and working with them,” she said.


Watch the full presentation here: