Starr Davis was smitten when she met a handsome stranger with flawless skin and a wide smile during a brief trip to Houston in March 2020. He was charming and persistent. She gave him her number and they began talking.
Their whirlwind romance took an unexpected turn when she revealed that she was pregnant. His aggressive behavior began to make her feel uncomfortable. He was, however, the father of her child. With some reservations, she left New York City to move to Texas. She had never had a good relationship with her father, so maybe things would be different for her first child.
Being able to work remotely at her job at the onset of the covid-19 pandemic made the transition easier. She was able to rent an apartment, and he moved in. She hoped for the best. After a few weeks, he began to physically abuse her and forbade her from going outside. He said it was to protect their unborn child and her from covid. She suffered silently, with her partner watching every move, and she had no close friends or family nearby to support her. She often found refuge in the small, walk-in closet in her bedroom.
” I took naps in my closet. Davis recollects with tears, “I cried in my closet.” “I tried to kill myself in the closet .”
,” Davis recalled.
Davis believes her abuser’s problems predated their relationship. She believes that the stress of the pandemic has exacerbated their problems. She suspects that these circumstances also influenced her decision-making. She says, “If there wasn’t a pandemic going down, I would have fled.” “I would have left.”
Covid seems like it has made matters worse for many women who are victims of domestic violence at home. It is difficult to find data on domestic violence during the pandemic, especially since many cases go unreported. But anti-domestic-violence advocates point to dramatic increases in calls to shelters and support groups.
Many care workers see indications that this increase in domestic violence seems to have disproportionately affected Black women like Davis. The pandemic’s financial and health problems, which also disproportionately impacted Black women, likely made matters worse by creating a pressure cooker full of stressors regarding health, housing, employment, financial insecurity, and other financial issues.
Jacqueline Willett is a licensed clinical social worker. She describes the pandemic in terms of a “perfect storm” that left many women (including Black women) feeling trapped in their homes and unable to escape their abusers. “A lot of folks have been made to stay or remain in the home with folks who are violating them,” says Willett, who until earlier this year served as intake and well-being coordinator for Coburn Place in Indianapolis, which offers transitional housing and other support for domestic violence survivors. It was difficult to find and seek support, especially in those early days of the pandemic. Many women were afraid of contracting covid, says Kandee Lewis, CEO of Positive Results Center, a nonprofit in Gardena, California, that focuses on preventing domestic violence and sexual assault. In some cases, there was nowhere to turn. She says that “because isolation orders were in effect, there were many doors shut to victims.” “We know that violence continued, in some instances escalating.” As the pandemic raged, some organizations discovered ways to use technology to reach those who were not able to travel. In response to the special needs of those affected by the pandemic, some organizations increased their capacity or created new services such as apps and secure messaging channels.
But more than two and half years after the pandemic began, there remains a significant gap between the needs of Black women experiencing domestic violence and the care they’re able to access. Lewis states that “we will see the fallout from the hidden abuse for many years to come.”
Editor’s note: If you live in the US and are experiencing domestic violence, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline through their website, by texting START to 88788, or by calling 1-800-799-7233.
A “perfect storm”
Even before the pandemic, Black women faced a crisis of violence. Data from a 2017 study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that Black women were significantly more likely than white women to be killed by an acquaintance. More than half of all homicides among women–about 55%–were related to intimate partner violence, or IPV (domestic violence perpetrated by a spouse or romantic partner). And a report by a gun safety advocacy group, based on FBI data from the years 2013 to 2017, found that Black women were twice as likely to be shot and killed by an intimate partner as white women–and Black women between the ages of 18 and 34 were almost three times as likely. US Census data suggests that the pandemic affected Black households more than white households in terms of the cumulative effects of job loss, food insufficiency, and financial insecurity.
Economic and health disparities can put someone at greater risk for domestic violence and make it harder to get help, says Karma Cottman, who helms the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community (also known as Ujima), based in Washington, DC. Cottman states, “What we saw and to some extent still see is the layers of vulnerability that exist in Black women and the Black community that were highlighted by the pandemic.”
It is not clear how many Black women were affected by domestic violence during this pandemic. Support advocates see a disturbing signal in FBI statistics that showed an increase in murders of Black girls and women. At least four Black women and girls were murdered per day in the US in 2020, adding up to 405 more murders than the previous year, according to those statistics.
Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, who is founder and president of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity, and Race in Mechanicsville, Virginia, says there is a troubling dearth of federal data available about the relationship between the pandemic and domestic violence, especially for people from marginalized groups.
Sharpe points out that the Household Pulse Survey, a weekly household survey distributed by the US Census Bureau to track the pandemic’s impact on American households, doesn’t include questions about people’s experience with violence.
A Census Bureau spokesperson says the agency does not track data on domestic violence directly and pointed to the US National Crime Victimization Survey compiled by the US Department of Justice. That survey suggests that rates of both domestic violence and intimate partner violence dropped in 2020 compared with 2019, but the survey also found that the proportion of reported cases of intimate partner violence fell from 58% to 41% over the same period. The survey found that Blacks were more likely to be victims of violent crime than Hispanic or white people. However, the data on domestic violence was not broken down by race.
A preliminary report from the CDC examined emergency room visits related to suspected cases of intimate partner violence, finding that they peaked just before the pandemic began and dropped by as much as a third in ensuing months. The decline may have been due to covid mitigation measures, which the authors acknowledge. These figures were not broken down by ethnicity or race. Cassie Strawn, a spokesperson for the CDC, explained that it is difficult to collect more detailed data. Strawn states that the main problem is in accurately measuring IPV without compromising safety, privacy and confidentiality of IPV victims.
For now, much of the information available on domestic violence against Black women is from nonprofits and government agencies that many women contacted directly for help. Many people who work in these areas report a rise in the number of cases or requests for assistance.
District court judge Katrina Ross, who oversees domestic violence cases in Jefferson County, Alabama, a jurisdiction that is 44% Black, says she observed an increase in domestic violence cases with Black women as victims during the pandemic. Coburn Place, the center in Indianapolis, which has a clientele that is more than 60% Black women, served 50% more people between March and December 2020 than it had in all of 2019, according to the Indianapolis Recorder.
And workers at Jenesse Center, a domestic violence intervention and prevention center in Los Angeles with a sizable clientele of Black women and children, say they saw a similar surge in 2020. At one point its staff was helping more than 200 additional people, forcing the team to offer overflow housing services at a local hotel. Charmine Davis, a clinical psychologist and Jenesse’s family wellbeing department leader, said that they saw injuries “like nothing we’d ever seen before” in terms of severity and number.
At a time when Black women were likely more vulnerable to domestic violence, the pandemic also created unprecedented outreach challenges. Many organizations responsible for domestic violence survivors struggled to find new ways of delivering services and performing outreach that was not previously done in person at schools, houses or worships.
Zoom, messaging apps, email, and texting became vital lifelines for people in need.
“We very rapidly kind of transitioned into being more creative in the way we provide services, doing things virtually,” says Angela Beatty, chief officer of domestic violence victim services for the YWCA in Oklahoma City. “So [we] were] meeting clients virtually, whether it was over the phone or via Zoom.”
Beatty staff set up Google Voice phone numbers as well as dedicated social media accounts in order to make it easier for clients to communicate with their support staff. In Los Angeles, the Jenesse Center doubled down on promoting its Jenesse4Hope smartphone app, which allows users to schedule counseling appointments, journal, and access a “get help” feature that dials 911 straight from the app if they have it open during an emergency.
Jamie R. Wright, a Houston-based Black mother of two grown daughters, believes a Zoom call saved her life after her new husband snapped one morning in April 2020. “He pushed my neck against the bathroom sink, and choked me,” she said. She says that he then hit me in my face.
Wright called the police after the violence continued, and the responding officers left pamphlets about nearby domestic violence support services. Her pastor noticed her bruised, swollen face in a Zoom counseling session and advised her to leave. Wright says that Wright was told by her pastor, “In that moment he told me to value myself and to do what was best for my life.”
She drove with only an overnight bag to a local domestic violence shelter and stayed there for three months before she was able to save enough money to buy an apartment. Wright can’t help but think that covid played a part in her abuse. She says that Wright believes that covid made it easier for her to be attacked because of the pandemic. Advocates say that while some Black women, such as Wright, were able to use technology like Zoom and Google Voice to seek help during the pandemics, there is still a need for better support for those who reach out. Lewis claims that many Black women who have received services from her organization report feeling disrespected and mistreated at domestic violence shelters. Black women feel harsher and are often made to feel that they have been subject to abuse in exchange for their services,” Lewis says. “They report being asked stereotypically sexist questions that women of other ethnicities do not get.” There is a lack of culturally sensitive support for Black women in many ways. Many shelters do not provide the best products for Black women’s hair and skin.
Lewis and Willett of Coburn Place say some of those gaps in support could be addressed by more diversity training to help staffers learn about cultural differences and norms that may affect how Black women respond to abuse. Many people fear the possibility of being contacted by law enforcement or social services agencies. Consider the case of Florida mother Marissa Alexander, who spent time in prison for firing a warning shot after her husband allegedly attacked and threatened to kill her.
I’ve seen it myself. Minority survivors will call for help, and somehow get things switched against them. Now they have a case against them,” says Willett from Coburn Place.
Starr Davis claims she was afraid she would be “end up dead too” or arrested if she called the police. She says that calling the police almost felt like a risk factor. Two months after her daughter was born, she had the strength to leave her abusive husband. It was a difficult and terrifying process that she is still amazed she survived. She has since moved to another state, taken a new job and started writing poetry. Therapy helped her to process her trauma and identify the internal issues that often keep Black women in abusive relationships. She hopes that sharing her story publicly will help others in similar situations.
That’strong Black woman’ trope–yeah! I think that’s what really stops us from seeking help, she says. “Like, [we] are just carrying that cross every single time and not really understanding that it’s okay for us to just be vulnerable people that need help .”
Chandra Thomas Whitfield is an award-winning freelance writer and multimedia journalist based in Colorado.
This article was supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation, a family foundation based in San Francisco and Los Altos, California, that works to advance sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners, and support human rights for all people.
It was published through MIT Technology Review’s covid inequality fellowships supporting journalism focused on the pandemic’s disparate impacts. For more on this topic, read about the racial disparities of long covid and Native communities that are using pandemic relief funds to upgrade their telecom networks.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.