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Intimate partner violence rises - advice from Texas State's Flasch

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Steve Ulfelder | May 6, 2020

Dr. Paulina Flasch got worried as soon as states began curtailing activities as a result of COVID-19. “The entire community got ready for bad news,” she says. “We knew this was going to be happening.”

The community she refers to is experts and advocates on intimate partner violence, and what they anticipated was a rise in assault as victims were locked down with their abusers. Flasch is an assistant professor of professional counseling at Texas State University; co-chair of the Trauma and Interpersonal Violence Research Lab in the counseling program; and a survivor of intimate partner violence herself. Indeed, it was personal experience that sparked her interest in the field.

Since the coronavirus lockdown began, advocates’ fears have been realized. France and Spain have seen double-digit increases in intimate partner violence. Major U.S. cities including New York and San Francisco have also experienced upticks. While other cities, including Austin, have experienced fewer such reports since the outbreak began, that downturn has failed to keep pace with the drop in overall crime. 

The United Nations has called for action to combat the surge. “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic,” Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted, though it must be noted that men, too, can be victims of intimate partner violence.

Moreover, Flasch notes that the very nature of the lockdown makes it more difficult for victims to report the crime. “They’re isolated with their abusers and have limited access to resources, so they can’t get calls in,” she says. “The reality of intimate partner violence is that it’s about power and control.” Given today’s limited opportunities for movement, abusers have more of both – and they are using them as leverage. Flasch says this explains why the more severe cases are being reported by neighbors and friends, not victims themselves. 

Victims are forced to choose between fleeing, and thus exposing themselves to a potentially fatal disease, or staying cooped up with their abusers. “Talk about a complex, impossible decision-making process,” Flasch says. She and other experts have advice for current victims of intimate partner violence and those seeking to recover from prior abuse.

Advice for current victims

“Safety comes first,” Flasch says. “It’s tempting for friends and family members to say, ‘Why don’t you just leave?’ But even before the coronavirus hit, statistics showed that leaving is when people get murdered.”

Thus, she encourages victims and potential victims to begin by viewing all actions through a safety lens. Under present circumstances, that will often mean remaining at home and making a plan. “Safety planning for different situations is a big aspect of advocacy work,” Flasch says. Some examples:

  • Perform a “lethality assessment” of the environment and situation. Are there weapons in the house? Has there been any strangulation? Have there been threats to kill, threats to commit suicide or harm to children or animals? Higher lethality may force victims to be more proactive despite COVID-19.
  • Involve a neighbor who can call the police if needed or otherwise help.
  • Figure out which areas of the home are safest and stay there as much as possible. Kitchens, to take the top example, are notoriously dangerous due to the number of sharp objects there.
  • If there are children in the home, arrange a “safe word” with them – a code that means leave the area, go for help or call 911.

Advice for those recovering

Flasch says that in addition to a rise in intimate partner violence, advocates are “seeing a lot of retraumatization.” Power, control and isolation are all hallmarks of this form of violence. Those seeking to rebuild their lives may be affected by today’s calls for social distance and sheltering in place – regardless of the intent of such measures. “Their abusive partner used to isolate them, monitor them,” she notes. “Now the government’s doing the same thing.”

To deal with this, here are coping strategies for survivors:

  • To fight feelings of powerlessness, focus on things you do have control over. “It may be as silly as what’s for dinner or what book to read,” Flasch says.
  • Routine and structure are crucial for people during the pandemic, and they are especially important for survivors of intimate partner violence.
  • Boundaries, too, are important for survivors, who typically found those lines crossed by their abuser. These boundaries may be physical, such as making your bedroom off-limits to children at certain times. Flasch also advises limiting your consumption of social media and news, especially if they tend to upset you.
  • Social connection is extremely important for survivors, and that is a challenge today. “If you can reach out to people, maintain connections,” Flasch says, “you’ll be so much better off.” Facebook is home to many helpful groups.
  • She stresses that in an unprecedented crisis like this one, survivors should “give yourself permission to not accomplish all the time, to not be perfect.” It is part of a larger self-care strategy. Rather than feeling guilty for not overachieving, Flasch urges survivors to meditate, practice mindfulness and ultimately relax. “Find some simple pleasure in every day,” she says, “even if it’s just eating a bowl of ice cream.”
flasch headshot
Paulina Flasch, assistant professor and professional counselor in the College of Education, focuses on family violence, specifically intimate partner violence. She is co-chair of Family Violence Research Team in the counseling program.

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For more information, contact University Communications:

Jayme Blaschke, 512-245-2555

Sandy Pantlik, 512-245-2922