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With family gatherings and increased tension adding onto COVID-related stress, how can we prepare and educate ourselves for the domestic violence we may encounter around family and friends during Christmas and New Years? 

So, is it true that the holidays are a particular cause or a time where we see a rise in domestic violence? According to Lisa Johnson, Manager of Direct Services at the domestic violence charity Women’s Aid, it’s not so much the holidays themselves as it is the circumstances around the holidays. What can escalate domestic violence by perpetrators is the lack of services that are typically available to victims during the holidays. 

“With schools, workplaces, doctor’s offices and other ‘safe places’ closed or manned by staff, it is much more difficult for survivors to get help when they need it,” Johnson said.

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Amy Norton, Senior Director of funding and community development at Dallas’ Genesis Women’s Shelter stated that the spike in domestic violence during the holidays can be attributed to stress and rising tensions. 

“Tensions can get higher during the holidays, right, just simple family drama,” Norton said. “But turn that into an abusive home and you can only imagine how much, you know, those situations arise — tensions get high in domestic violence situations that can increase in frequency and severity.”

According to a 2019 KVUE (Austin news network) article, if anything, the idea of increased violence being rooted in the holidays may be ignoring the unstable nature of an abuser. 

“When we fall for the myth that abuse is bigger during one time period or another, we misunderstand the nature of violence — it’s a cycle, it’s often unpredictable and you can’t trace it on a calendar,” Marquette Women’s Center site states.  

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As for the specific rise (in calls and cases) right after the holidays, Norton stated that from her experience, they are the result of victims wanting to stay for the sake of their families. After the holidays have passed, however, they may be ready to reach out and make a phone call. 

 Norton stated that from what she’s found, there are a multitude of reasons why holidays or not, victims may stay in abusive relationships. For instance, when victims leave their abusers, they are more likely to be harmed or killed and she stated it is the most dangerous time in a domestic violence situation. Executive Director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence Wendy Mahoney stated in a 2017 interview with the Clarion-Ledger that since domestic violence is all about control, a victim leaving causes an abuser to lose that.

“Domestic violence is all about power and control, and when a woman leaves, a man has lost his power and control,” Mahoney said.

Norton stated that children can also be held over the head of victims by abusers and use them [children] to wield authority over them. 

“It’s all about power and control. So, whatever he can do — whatever he can hold over her head and control her with, he will, and what better tool to control a mother than her very own children,” Norton said.

Financial abuse can also play a role in 99% of abusive relationships, which if anything, may be more effective than the lockdown at limiting victims, according to Norton. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 78% of Americans do not recognize financial abuse as a form of domestic violence. Financial abuse also results in 70% of victims not being able to work and 53% losing a job because of their abuser. The National Network to End Domestic Violence also cites fear of not being able to financially provide for them and their children were one of the top reasons for staying or returning to an abusive partner. 

According to Norton, therefore domestic violence shelters such as Genesis don’t necessarily push victims to leave. It ultimately may not be the best decision for them.

“We’re not standing on a rooftop saying, ‘you need to leave your relationship’ because we know that may not be the best decision for her at this moment,” Norton said. “It may be safer for her and her family for her to stay.”

Norton stated that with abusive relationships, there are unfortunately instances where the family may pick up on abusive behavior, but will validate or excuse the abuser (i.e. arguing that it’s not really abuse and that the victim is “nagging”). She stated that financial abuse is often easy to hide from family and friends, along with isolation via emotional and mental abuse. 

“Just him telling her that, ‘well, nobody’s gonna believe you anyway. You’re just a nag, you need me,’” Norton said. “All of these ways where he can manipulate her, to control her and have a certain outcome that he wants.”

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), in psychologically [mentally] abusive relationships, 17.9% of women have experienced a relationship where their partner tried to keep them from seeing their family and friends.  

Family members can keep an eye out for behaviour like physical ailments, flinching when he walks by, being afraid to miss a phone call and having zero financial say, etc. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, forms of financial abuse to look out for include putting your partner on an allowance, not allowing the survivor to have access to the bank accounts, hiding or lying about joint assets and having a lack of knowledge regarding household finances and financial decisions. 

According to Norton, the best that friends and family can do is to hear the victim out, regardless of their connection to them. 

“The best thing that we can do as her family member or as her friend is to listen to her and believe her even if we know the abuser as well,” Norton said. “To listen to her without judgment, to refer her to a place like Genesis where she can talk with someone and explain what’s going on, and we can help her no matter where she is no matter the situation.” 

According to 1011 NOW, Voices of Hope Women’s Shelter and Friendship Home Domestic Violence Shelter, the increase after the holidays is in part linked to more family members being around to bear witness to the abuse. 

COVID has also had its own impact on the rate victims call in at. According to KERA News, there was an almost 14% rise in 2020, with an additional increase this year. According to Norton, there has been a rise in emotion, stress, financial difficulty and health issues that people have experienced for over a year and a half, meaning abusers and victims are just now starting to get back out. Being stuck at home with an abuser puts victims in a position where they are unable to contact someone for help. 

“We saw more people trying to access services and resources from us, but fewer of them being able to plan to leave because their person is in the same house with them, or having access to a telephone that they can’t hear or that they can go through their text messages and try to find them,” Friendship Home Program Manager Kay Mathews said.

Norton saw this as well among clients during the COVID lockdown. Victims were unable to call because when abusers are about power and control, there is little opportunity for privacy.

“We saw that a lot among our clients,” Norton said. “That he may have been in the next room and because of the way abusers work and because it’s all about power and control and knowing where she is and what she’s doing, she literally did not have a chance to call without fear of him knowing and potentially endangering her and her children.”

Norton also advises that family and friends avoid becoming too involved due to the safety risk it could pose for the victim and her children.

“Even when we’re out talking in public, even when we’re out talking about how to help your friend we don’t ever expect anyone to swoop in and be the white knight so to speak and save her because it could be very dangerous,” Norton said.

According to the NCADV, 20% of homicide victims in domestic violence situations were people who attempted to intervene [family, friends, bystanders, etc]. 

Resources for Domestic Violence Victims

Genesis Women’s Shelter is already predicting an increase in numbers around the holidays, holding a coat drive and holiday program that allows the women who stay there to be able to shop for their own families. Norton stated that at times, there are clients who show up to their shelter on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, they have presents available for their children. Local hotline numbers for victims to call or text Genesis Women’s shelter at 214-946-(HELP) 4357 or call The Family Place at 214-941-1991, which accepts male victims of domestic violence. Victims in need of a ride can contact Families to Freedom at 972-885-7020.