In the midst of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, several media outlets and political figures have spotlighted the need to examine how the pandemic affects domestic violence survivors. Such concerns are consistent with extant research suggesting that perpetration rates rise during periods of crisis. Early reports by women's rights activists in both China and the US already point to increased calls to hotlines and victim services. Alarmingly, the rise in calls has also been accompanied by reports of domestic abusers using the epidemic to control and threaten their partners. In the short term, measures to combat the spread of coronavirus, such as social distancing, could increase the vulnerability of victims by cutting their ties to family and friends, and limiting their options for leaving abusive relationships. In the long term, the economic repercussions of the coronavirus outbreak could amplify victims' economic dependence on their partners. While the negative consequences of the pandemic on survivors are manifesting in ways consistent with past scholarship, how state programs involved in the prevention of domestic violence will respond to the crisis remains to be seen.
Domestic violence preventive programs face an unprecedented challenge: how to provide much needed services while practicing social distancing. Having conducted research on Partner Abuse Intervention Programs (PAIPs) in Illinois for several years, I (first author) wondered how they would respond to these unique circumstances. PAIPs are preventive programs aimed at helping domestic abusers change their behavior by providing educational content delivered through weekly group meetings. They are also meant to ensure victim safety by exercising surveillance on participants and keeping victims informed of their progress in the program. With large numbers of abusers court-mandated to complete PAIP as a condition of probation or supervision, they are a central feature of the state's response to domestic violence. I wondered how agencies providing PAIP would respond to the mandate to practice social distancing, and how changes would affect participants. My curiosity was also driven by the notion that breakdowns can be a source of learning about taken-for-granted organizational practices.
I reached out to PAIP facilitators only a few days after they received guidelines mandating them to practice social distancing. I expected to find agencies in a state of chaos, struggling to adapt their day-to-day operations. To my surprise, they seemed to have responded to the crisis very quickly and efficiently. There was no interruption of service: all facilitators I spoke to had moved their interventions online, conducting individual sessions virtually. Some programs were trying to figure out ways to conduct group meetings remotely, a practice they believed could be implemented shortly. This is not to say that they were not negatively impacted by the crisis. Facilitators expressed concerns with the wellbeing and health of their clients, and with the financial future of their agencies. Some found it slightly harder to “read” their clients over the phone, without the behavioral cues of in-person interactions. Employees also had to clock in more hours than usual in order to do individual phone calls with all of their clients. However, most were confident that they were able to “get the job done”. Perhaps most importantly, my respondents reported that, at least in their view, the clients themselves were satisfied with the changes.
The swiftness with which PAIPs moved to virtual meetings highlighted an organizational practice that was never questioned before: the mandate for participants to be physically present. State protocols stipulate that participants should meet in person and this practice was understood as a necessary burden by facilitators, participants, and even myself. However, through interviews with PAIP participants, I found that for the most disadvantaged, this burden was significant. Because the availability of affordable programs was limited, participation in PAIP often required a long commute. Moreover, criminal justice involvement meant frequent commute to attend court proceedings, meetings with probation officers and social workers, as well as other mandated treatment programs. In order to be physically present in all these spaces, some participants had to reduce their work hours, while others lost a job or dropped out of school. Many also reported how attending evening and weekend classes impacted their ability to be involved in their children’s lives. Finally, many lived in constant fear of violating their conditions of probation by arriving late or missing sessions or appointments. The fact that agencies adapted to remote meetings with minimal friction revealed that while it is typically understood as a necessary burden, the mandate to be physically present in different locations on a regular basis represents first and foremost a punitive practice.
PAIPs are typically described as therapeutic, less punitive alternatives to going to jail for individuals arrested for domestic violence and indeed, many of my respondents believed that they had benefited from the program. They described improved relationships with their partners, but also colleagues and family members, a new sense of self-awareness or an increased capacity to deal with anger issues and crises in their lives. However, for some, the cost of participation outweighed these benefits. Most importantly, the punitive dimensions of PAIPs and probation had effects that were counterproductive to the official goals of the program, which is to support and protect abuse victims. The burden associated with PAIP participation for the most disadvantaged participants often had important repercussions on their partners and children. The financial burden had a direct impact on participants’ capacity to provide for their families. During fieldwork, I regularly observed partners with young children waiting outside of the agencies for group meetings to end. Hence, the punitive effect of PAIP was felt by entire families. This should be cause for concern considering studies showing how financial distress and work-life balance issues can strain relationships and heighten the incidence and severity of domestic abuse.
It is important to note that researchers often accept the narratives that support organizational practices, potentially failing to see how punishment is supported by routine practices widely seen as unchangeable. However, crises and systemic breakdowns provide us with unique opportunities to distinguish between functional aspects of organizations and punitive practices disguised as necessary burdens. As Graham and Thrift note: “things only come into visible focus as things when they become inoperable” (2007, 2). Of course, we are not suggesting that PAIPs could or should shift to remote meetings entirely. There might be non-negligible benefits to meeting in person. However, it is worth thinking about the ways that technological solutions could be used to lift some of the burden imposed on PAIP participants and their families by criminal justice interventions. Many organizations responded creatively to the current crisis, and some of the strategies that they developed could be implemented in the longer-term.
While we highlight the justifications that underpin punitive practices in domestic violence prevention programs, similar examples abound in a variety of state-run programs. In recent weeks, social distancing efforts have led to media reportage on problematic practices in other contexts such as long waits in crowded courthouses, cramped spaces in migrant detention centers and the booking of people into prisons for crimes that represent a low risk to public safety — practices that normally go unnoticed. While the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic on domestic violence victims and programs will only reveal themselves in due time, we encourage researchers to utilize the current crisis and other disruptive moments to examine state-run processes and the punishments they needlessly enforce on the marginalized and disempowered.
References Graham, Stephen, and Nigel Thrift. 2007. ‘Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance.” Theory, Culture & Society 24 (3):1–25.
This article was written with the collaboration of Marie Laperrière, a Doctoral Student of Sociology at Northwestern University