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The 'shadow pandemic' devastating Black women

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Before the pandemic, intimate partner violence was already a national public health crisis. But now, what the United Nations is calling the "shadow pandemic" is devastating our communities.

Domestic violence homicides have skyrocketed in Phoenix. Alaska is also seeing a sharp increase in femicide. By mid-year, more than one third of Milwaukee’s homicides were attributed to domestic violence.

Having worked with domestic violence survivors, I know that Black women are at particular risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women bear the highest rates of femicide, although they reflect the second-highest victimization rates.

This pandemic makes it nearly impossible for Black women to escape danger. Although COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have been somewhat lifted, women are finding it more difficult to leave abusive partners safely. Even before, Black women faced significant challenges in securing limited services. There are two main reasons they delay leaving until victimization is at peak lethality: systemic racism and a pervasive distrust of service providers.

Systemic racism has disastrous outcomes among populations with the direst need. And when it comes to domestic violence, the most vulnerable are Black women. They would rather remain with the enemy they know than leave and contend with a support system that fails them. What makes victimization in the context of COVID-19 even more destructive is the dearth of survivor resources.

Survivor services during the pandemic are limited to phone calls. What happens if the woman’s abusive partner monitors her phone activity and social media posts?

Calling 911 is not always the answer. I have heard countless Black survivors share stories about delayed responses to their calls for help. Their stories of severe physical abuse are sometimes discounted because their dark complexion camouflages their injuries.

If Black women make it into a shelter, they are often relegated to neighborhoods with subpar facilities. In cases where women receive vouchers for low-cost housing, they are often on long waiting lists.

Sometimes survivors’ searches for a safe haven leads them to the hospital, but due to the pandemic, people are not quick to go there. Black survivors have shared stories that health care providers in emergency rooms and urgent care facilities did not routinely screen for domestic violence, despite suspicious injuries that could lead a trained first responder to detect abuse.

In fact, the health care system does not have a standard mechanism for screening domestic violence victimization — even though the scholarly literature shows us that more women between ages 15 and 44 are injured by an intimate partner than are diagnosed with cancer, hurt in car accidents or harmed by acquaintances.

In a season when everyone is reimagining how we do business, why are we not reimagining the domestic violence service provision system in America?

Bring Black women to the table and ask survivors themselves — and their providers — what is needed. And because so many survivors are trapped due to economic constraints, pay them for their ideas.

Black people are already twice as likely as whites to die from coronavirus. We need to work together — quickly — to make sure this does not include innocent victims of domestic violence.

Bernadine Waller is a doctoral candidate and adjunct professor at Adelphi University School of Social Work. Her National Institutes of Health-funded research examines the intersections of intimate partner violence, service provision and help seeking.