Intimate Partner Violence, COVID-19, and Technology

Recapping a Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society Panel

Written by Kira Nagoshi and Hiranya Atreyapurapu

Notice for victims of IPV:

If you or a loved one is being impacted by intimate partner violence, please do not hesitate to reach out to the following resources. Sourced from the CDC.

National Domestic Violence Hotline
Call 1-800-799-7233 and TTY 1-800-787-3224.

Love is Respect National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline
Call 1-866-331-9474 or TTY 1-866-331-8453

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s (RAINN) National Sexual Assault Hotline
Call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

National Resource Center on Domestic Violence

Introduction and Background

** Disclaimer: the writers of this article are not affiliated with the Berkman Klein Center and this article was not written in collaboration with the Center. Views expressed belong solely to the authors, who attended the public panel with recording available here, and thus views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the Berkman Klein Center.

On February 12, 2021, Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society hosted a panel titled “Marginalized Women, Technology, COVID-19, and Intimate Partner Violence,” hosted by Roslyn Satchel, a fellow at the Center. Three esteemed panelists spoke: Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, Professor of Psychology and director of the Culture and Trauma Research lab at Pepperdine University; Professor Tanya Asim Cooper, associate clinical Professor of Law and director of the Restoration and Justice Clinic at Pepperdine Caruso School of Law; and Kendra Albert, an associate at the Berkman Klein Center and clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyber Law Clinic. This group of panelists discussed the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on victims of IPV and how technology both hinders and helps ensure resource access and equity for these victims.

What is Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)?

In the United States, millions of people are affected by intimate partner violence each year. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) reported that about 1 in 5 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have been impacted personally by IPV in their lifetime, either by contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking. The CDC defines intimate partner violence (IPV) as “…physical violence, sexual, violence, stalking or psychological harm”. This definition is expansive, referring to abuse that occurs in current or past relationships, in heterosexual or same-sex relationships, with or without sexual intimacy, regardless of the partner cohabiting with the victim, and across all identities and backgrounds.

IPV Risk

While IPV affects people of all identities, certain groups are more at risk than others. Dr. Bryant-Davis noted that there are many different factors that increase risk for IPV, including racial and ethnic marginalization, association with the LGBTQ+ community, experiencing poverty, and homelessness. This risk is particularly enhanced in the COVID-19 pandemic, as social isolation and staying at home, often with an intimate partner, is common.

“We are living in a trauma within a trauma.”

Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, Berkman Klein Center Panel

Megan L. Evans, M.D., M.P.H., Margo Lindauer, J.D., and Maureen E. Farrell, M.D. wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine about the impact of stay-at-home orders. In some regions, the number of calls to domestic violence hotlines decreased by more than 50%, not because IPV rates had dropped, but because victims could not connect with services. The existence of this phenomenon was corroborated throughout the panel.

“The reality is that COVID-19 has also increased the risk of intimate partner violence… There has been less of a buffer, less of an opportunity to come outside of the home and to seek services.”

Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, Berkman Klein Center Panel

Technology has been the substitute for in-person interaction, but it comes with more consequences for some than for others, particularly when the user is a victim of IPV.

Existing Resources, COVID-19 Challenges, and Tech Solutions

Telemedicine and Medical Providers

One of the biggest dangers that patients suffering from IPV face pertains to telemedicine; it is very difficult to ensure victims’ protection as it is very easy for them to face excessive possessiveness, control, and emotional blackmailing from their abusive partners who are likely to be in the house and control their usage of the internet.

Yet with all this being said, there is a possibility of addressing IPV through internet usage. A study found that ICT (information and communication technologies) can aid in addressing IPV. While the study acknowledged that women-centric IPV communications systems have to be designed, there is potential in increasing the effectiveness of ICT interventions catered towards addressing IPV through the use of smartphones, usage that is becoming quite common in lower and middle-income countries as well. ICT could potentially be used to develop safety plans or record potential abuse in video format or via voice recordings, as well as increase the awareness of IPV-related behaviors in multiple languages and catered to different cultures. Instagram and Facebook posts about domestic violence prevention could help in fostering an online community in order to increase awareness of IPV and potentially encourage victims to seek supportive services.

IPV screening can be beneficial for doctors in an introductory session of telemedicine. IPV computerized screening encouraged more women to disclose themselves as IPV victims. The biggest pitfalls of addressing IPV via ICT is that abusers can monitor the progress of ICT use and restrict their access. Moreover, women who are not adequately equipped with ICT due to socioeconomic divides or lack of internet literacy may be at a disadvantage.

Legal Courses of Action

Many IPV survivors choose to seek legal recourse against their abuser. Some options for victims include protective and restraining orders; such orders do not help protect against psychological abuse, but can help prevent physical abuse. While a legal course of action is possible, panelist Professor Tanya A. Cooper, director of a student-run clinic that represents domestic violence and human trafficking victims, stated that she has noticed both through her research and her legal experience that victims of color are generally seen as less credible witnesses despite experiencing IPV at higher rates.

“Victims of color are expected to be the perfect victims, with no evidence that they fought back even if they were defending themselves.”

Professor Tanya Asim Cooper, Berkman Klein Center Panel

The situation for victims has gotten worse as a result of the pandemic. To illustrate this change, Professor Cooper shared a story with the panel regarding her former client named Hope, a young black woman in her 20s. Her boyfriend’s increasingly controlling and violent behavior reached the unfortunate point where she was hospitalized on two occasions.

Hope had filed a domestic violence restraining order request, but COVID-related delays kept her from appearing for a hearing until almost 8 months later. Professor Cooper recalled that the judge treated Hope as the offender rather than the victim of IPV. In one instance, where Hope had taken her partner’s phone during an episode of erratic driving while texting, her actions were labeled as “aggressive” and “could negate his actions toward her”. Ultimately, after experiences with different judges over several months, Hope settled the case with her abuser after being told her allegations had become “stale”. Due to COVID-19, Hope lacked safe options to bring her story to court, and COVID-19 delays along with long-held societal prejudices against victims of color led to the abuser not receiving the punishment he deserved.

Throughout the case, Professor Cooper’s team met with Hope on Zoom and used secured servers for court documentation. When work could not be done online, Professor Cooper left paperwork outside of Hope’s mother’s home so Hope could retrieve it while staying socially distant. However, Professor Cooper emphasized that Hope was only able to make this switch because she was technologically adept. Survivors who lack access to technology, due to either financial reasons or because they are surveilled by their abuser, would not be able to work virtually with a legal team to receive the equitable support they deserve.

Other Communities

Professor Cooper mentioned faith communities as one alternative resource. Faith communities can offer emotional, spiritual, or even financial support to survivors, yet this often depends on the particular community being properly trained and educated to assist a survivor.

“If law enforcement and courts can’t or won’t assist, especially during the pandemic, let’s equip faith communities and other online communities where marginalized women go and let’s equip them to help.”

Professor Tanya Asim Cooper, Berkman Klein Center Panel

On the other hand, Kendra Albert noted in the panel that while there are many people who can be reached effectively in-person, there are also many individuals who are more comfortable with phone calls or other remote forms of communication. In recent years, online support groups have appeared online, often using existing social media sites like Facebook. Albert points out that while such groups can be helpful to many survivors, especially during the pandemic, there are safety concerns associated.

In cases of intimate partner violence and in intimate relationships in general, digital surveillance is not uncommon. This can occur through physical sharing of devices, phone plans, internet history, or even AI-generated advertisements that provide evidence of search history. Sharing information online in Facebook groups threatens the privacy of the victim both publicly if information is leaked and privately if the abuser discovers the group.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into almost every function of society, and has resulted in the proliferation of different tech-based alternatives to in-person interaction, ranging from university lectures on Zoom to telehealth appointments. However, as the panelists reiterated, technology increases access for some while taking away access from others, and more often than not, groups that were already marginalized are afflicted the most. Moreover, it is important to remember that while the pandemic may have pushed the struggles of marginalized groups into the limelight, these inequities have always existed. The story of 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown is one of many examples of this issue that Professor Cooper explained in the panel: victims of color who face dangerous situations, including but not limited to IPV, are treated unfairly and are often falsely villainized by both the justice system and society as a whole.

The pandemic has left victims of IPV more trapped than ever. We cannot and should not turn a blind eye to victims, even though difficult topics like IPV may be easy to ignore. Organizations like the Berkman Klein Center who are hosting events that explore important and relevant topics from many diverse perspectives encourage individuals to be unafraid to point out injustices when we see them and support others when they need it. As civil rights leader John Lewis and many others have asked: “if not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

Edited by Madelynn Park

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