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COVID-19 increases the need to be vigilant, proactive on domestic violence | Opinion

Senate President Steve Sweeney & Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg | October 23, 2020 | USA Today |


By the time you finish reading this op-ed, about 100 people in this country will have been physically abused by an intimate partner. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that more than 10 million women and men each year suffer such abuse, with an average of 20,000 calls to domestic violence hotlines placed every day.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have learned all too well different ways to chart the path of the virus. What has been less visible is how the added stress brought on by hours of quarantine and isolation has added to dangerous situations behind closed doors, where the often hidden scourge of domestic violence continues to surge, leaving behind scars of physical and sexual abuse that may never be fully known — and may never heal.

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men will experience contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime. In the aftermath of the pandemic, we are likely to find that those numbers have increased.

To heighten awareness of this societal nightmare and lead more survivors to seek assistance, the New Jersey Senate passed a resolution declaring October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month in New Jersey.

Experts, academics and advocates agree that stay-at-home orders, aimed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, have placed survivors of domestic violence at greater risk, as they are less likely to find alternative sources of housing or “safe havens,” and are often forced to be quarantined with their abusers.

“Many survivors exiting domestic violence shelters are reporting difficulties in accessing resources within the community,” said Amanda M. Stylianou, lead investigator for a Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care study that interviewed 83 domestic violence survivors in six shelters over a nine-month period. “Survivors in our study voiced concerns regarding access to food and transportation and securing safe housing, employment and affordable child care.”

The study also cited the need for more domestic abuse community resources.

This makes passage of legislation proposed by Sen. Loretta Weinberg, Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz and Sen. Linda Greenstein vital. Their legislative proposals would require domestic violence training for court and law enforcement personnel, provide notification to victims if their abuser is to be released from incarceration, and establish uniform standards for domestic violence programs. It is part of a comprehensive strategy to help survivors avail themselves of services they need, while at the same time continuing to raise awareness of the issue.

Part of that awareness is recognizing that many survivors of domestic violence who harmed or killed their abusers end up being swept into the penal system even as their own stories of abuse have been largely ignored. Currently, no agency collects official data on the number of survivors incarcerated for defending themselves. But according to a 2016 study published by the Vera Institute of Justice, 86% of women in jail are survivors of sexual violence and 77% are survivors of intimate partner violence. Legislation to remedy this problem would establish a supervised community reintegration program through the Department of Corrections to assist domestic violence victims following their incarceration, include reentry training and participation in family release programs.

We must also continue to bolster the efforts of those who provide support, resources and avenues of outreach for domestic abuse survivors in our state, including the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault (, New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence (, along with shelters and advocacy groups run by non-profits, faith groups and survivors.

Many of these providers are underfunded and struggle to respond to increased demand. We must support and empower these organizations because they are on the front lines of this public health crisis, and sometimes provide the last line of defense between life and death for families and individuals beginning to crumble under the weight of domestic violence and abuse.

Finally, we must remember that domestic violence is more commonplace than many of us might imagine. Just because we don’t witness such violence personally doesn’t mean it is not occurring. It is occurring all too often.

We need to remain vigilant. We need to look after one another, be watchful for signs of physical, sexual or emotional abuse exhibited by our neighbors, family and friends, and be willing and able to point them toward the services they need.

What we can’t do, what we must not do, is simply look away, and hope this dark menace in our society will magically disappear.

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