A data-driven approach to understanding domestic violence during the pandemic

Four takeaways from Penn researchers show there’s more to learn to protect those at risk for intimate partner violence.

Since the first COVID-19 quarantine orders, there’s been limited and inconsistent data about how such restrictions have affected the frequency of intimate partner violence and sexual assault, says Susan B. Sorenson, who runs the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse at the University of Pennsylvania

“Global leaders said there was a substantial increase in domestic violence and people thought that made sense,” says Sorenson, a professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice. “Some hotlines in Europe and elsewhere were reporting an increase. But we weren’t seeing the same thing in the States, so we decided to take a systematic look at the topic by examining help-seeking from multiple types of agencies.” 

Philadelphia is ideal for this research, Sorenson says. Some cities have multiple hotlines and several police departments. In Philadelphia, however, services are citywide, with one domestic violence hotline, one rape-crisis hotline, and one police department. The researchers examined calls to each service between January and May 2020, a timeframe that incorporated the statewide emergency declaration in Pennsylvania, school closures in Philadelphia, and the first citywide stay-at-home orders. 

Here are four takeaways from that work, conducted by Sorenson, Laura Sinko of the Perelman School of Medicine, and Penn criminologist Richard Berk in conjunction with local community-based agencies. 

1. The week following mid-March school closures, calls to Philadelphia’s domestic violence hotline dropped slightly. When the quarantine took effect, they returned to previous levels. This decrease likely was not due to a temporary dip in violent behavior, the researchers say, but rather due to asking families to acclimate to a new and stressful home situation.  

2. Calls to 911 for domestic violence did not change. By contrast, 911 calls for general assault fell by nearly one-half. Given that domestic violence calls are the most common type made to law enforcement, it’s notable that requests for help for problems in the home did not decrease, Sorenson says.

3. Call volume to the city’s rape-crisis hotline and calls to police regarding rape fell immediately following the statewide emergency declaration and remained lower. “We aren’t sure why it would change like that,” Sorenson says. “Rape-crisis hotline staff thought it might be related to a change in the population at risk, not necessarily to a change in the phenomenon.” Historically, she says, rates of sexual assault on colleges campuses are high, with acquaintances being the most common perpetrators, so closing campuses may have dispersed a vulnerable population. 

4. More data and research are needed to understand completely how pandemic-related changes affect those who experience or are at risk for intimate partner violence. For example, this work didn’t include fatalities related to domestic violence. “We don’t have information about whether those changed at all, and we would need a much larger geographic population to check,” Sorenson says. “Service providers anticipate that hotline calls will increase when people start going back to work and school, that is, when it’s safe to call again.” 

Susan B. Sorenson is director of the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse and a professor of social policy in the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania