She had already left him once, with the kids, in the car. He sought therapy and worked on his anger management, so she went back. Things were better for a time, and then they got worse. When he lost his job as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, his treatment of her became violently, unbearably abusive. But, as she told WIRED under the condition of anonymity, she has nowhere to go. He trashed the car she had left him in. Shelters are full. “I am in a situation where I have to decide if I want to sleep on the street, with my kids, or if I want to stay until I have the funds to get a car that I can sleep in,” she says. “I am hoping that the stimulus [check] will come through soon, so I can get a cheap car and a couple of nights in a motel. I do fear that I will be stuck here for a while.”
Her only link to the outside world is technology. She spoke with WIRED via email, deleting messages as soon as she’d read them. She posts about her struggles on r/domesticviolence, where victims, survivors, and their friends and family can commiserate, educate, and support each other as they battle to free themselves and loved ones from abusive relationships. Over the last few months, it’s become a terrifying chronicle of the unexpected ramifications of Covid-19. “It's definitely ramping up,” one moderator told WIRED. “I have a number of folks that have had their stimulus check snatched by the abusive noncustodial parents. Abusers threaten to punish the victim and the children by ‘bringing home Covid.’ And the ramp up of purchasing guns and using them to terrify the victims.”
As people continue to quarantine themselves during the Covid-19 pandemic, incidents of domestic violence continue to rise. Sheltering in place may protect people from the virus, but, for those facing threats at home, it also bottles them up with an extremely dangerous person. “We are seeing big spikes,” says Deborah Vagins, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “It is a similar trajectory to what happens after natural disasters, but happening to the whole world at once.” With victims in such close proximity to their abusers, victims and advocates must always work discreetly to work safely, and technology has become a huge part of that effort. During quarantine, it’s only become more important.
That being said, technology can also pose a real threat to people trying to extricate themselves from a violent situation. “Abusers take power away from victims,” says Brandy Dieterle, a lecturer at the University of Central Florida who studies digital rhetoric and domestic violence. “Because we’re so connected technologically, controlling their technology has become another way to do that.” Using spyware—sometimes called stalkerware in this context—is common among technologically savvy abusers, but technological abuse doesn’t have to be that sophisticated to be dangerous.
Many abusers know all of their victim’s passwords, and monitor their text messages, emails, and direct messages. “Realistically, it falls upon the victim to educate herself about technology,” says Brenda Baddam, an associate at the law firm Barclay Damon and former Albany assistant district attorney. “As a prosecutor, I saw firsthand how certain applications put victims at higher risk.” If the abuser is inside all of their accounts, finding a victim who is attempting to escape can be as easy as opening the Find My app. With many abusers now quarantined alongside the people they’re abusing, technological privacy is even more difficult to find, and many of the tech-based resources for victims and survivors are still relatively new. “When I first started doing this research in 2013, the response was, ‘People just shouldn’t use smartphones,’” says Dieterle. “We’ve moved beyond that. People need access to technology.” So advocates are working to out-innovate abusers and turn smartphones and laptops from risk to resource.
In the view of many activists, the best and most reliable resource for victims is the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which connects people to advocates who can help them develop a safety plan and direct them toward local resources. For victims who can’t safely make a phone call, there is also a chat line that automatically deletes conversations as soon as the victim ends them. If opened in an incognito browser, it’s nigh on untraceable. “These hotlines, as well as local domestic violence programs, can help you plan to stay safe in a changing environment,” says Vagins. “They can help you protect yourself in your own home, find new ways to connect with friends and neighbors, and adjust your safety plan.”
The App and Google Play stores are home to additional resources that, according to Laura Brignone, a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley who studies technological interventions for domestic violence, fall into three major categories. First, there are secure text message replacements like Circle of 6, an app that with two taps allows you to seek help from a select group of people by sending a preprogrammed text, sharing your location, or asking someone to call you at a moment that needs to be interrupted. Other apps, like Dr. Phil’s Aspire News, provide hidden panels of information and emergency contacts disguised as something unsuspicious, like a news site. The last category are apps created by domestic violence advocacy organizations, like the One Love apps. “They have just so much educational material, like a tool called the Danger Assessment that assesses your risk of being killed,” Brignone says. “It’s been validated by loads of academic research and is very frequently used in advocacy settings, but the app lets you use it for yourself and makes tailored safety recommendations.”
For those who can’t risk downloading a new app (or spend time sifting through an app store), Vagins recommends creatively using the apps you already have. “You may be able to use an unassuming app that the abusive partner may not monitor, like a game that has a chat feature, to message a friend,” she says. If an abuser knows the password to someone’s email account, they should make a new one. It’s also important that they establish codewords with their support network so they know when, how, and where to help.
It’s important to remember that, even during quarantine, all of the resources that were available to victims and survivors of domestic violence before the pandemic are still available now. Some hotlines, bolstered by stimulus packages, have even managed to expand their staff to meet the rising demand, though working remotely has presented challenges. Governments haven’t forgotten about domestic violence victims either. “New York has extended temporary orders of protection, and that’s great,” says Baddam. “Courts are also working remotely, and people are able to obtain an order of protection even if they don’t have the ability to go to the court directly.”
Domestic violence is an incredibly isolating experience at any time, let alone during a pandemic, and Vagins suspects that the surge in cases may actually be larger than anyone knows. The National Network to End Domestic Violence expects reports to rise further once shelter-in-place orders are lifted and survivors are able to get more space from their abusers.
Those who may know someone who is experiencing domestic violence should make themselves a resource. Hotlines, advocates, online communities like r/domesticviolence all welcome those attempting to support a victim and can provide advice for how to best offer it. Really, even doing that research legwork is an enormous help. “You don’t just have 30 minutes while the abuser is asleep to access resources,” says Brignone. “Look around at the services that are in your area and have that information ready for the survivor in your life.” Reaching out to let someone know that you believe them, and care for them, and are there to help could be lifesaving. A Covid-19 check-in is a perfect cover story.