Domestic violence is a public health problem that governors should address

Domestic violence is a public health problem that governors should address
© istock

An estimated one in four women will experience domestic violence during their lifetimes. Most cases are unreported so that figure is probably even higher. Because of Covid-19 many of these women and their children have been trapped at home with their abusers — isolated from friends and family members — while the economy shatters, unemployment rate skyrockets, and financial stressors abound. These are conditions in which violence at home flourishes, and indeed, the threat has intensified in the United States and worldwide

Lawmakers would be gravely mistaken to consider this increase in domestic violence as just a matter of private concern. Domestic violence has far-reaching consequences beyond the four walls of a home and the families within which it occurs — it profoundly impacts our public health and leaves a lasting impact on the many affected lives. Governors, state legislatures and mayors have an opportunity to address these risks, support and protect victims, and demonstrate leadership in ways that federal lawmakers have not. 

Governor Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoCuomo calls on wealthy to return to New York City: 'You got to come back!' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Key 48 hours loom as negotiators push for relief deal Cuomo to serve as National Association of Governors chair MORE has done precisely that. In the midst of COVID, he convened a Task Force — of which I am proud to be a part — to study the spike in domestic violence during the pandemic. We just released a series of recommendations and identified innovative ways to support and protect victims. Every other Governor in the country ought to adopt these recommendations immediately and make sure they are driving solutions that are responsive to the needs of survivors and their families.

ADVERTISEMENT

According to the CDC’s 2015 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, nearly 24 people per minute are physically abused, sexually abused, or stalked by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this amounts to more than 12 million women and men. 

What our society has failed to recognize — to our detriment — is that domestic violence impacts more than just the individuals and families involved, but whole communities and our collective well-being. Domestic violence is disturbingly connected to problems for which we all foot the bill: mass shootings, homelessness, and economic insecurity. 

Violence at home frequently leads to violence in public. As Rachel Louise Snyder wrote in No Visible Bruises, “mass shootings, more than half the time, are domestic violence.” Most mass shootings in the U.S. — those in which four or more individuals are killed—are related to domestic violence: shooters killed intimate partners or other family members in at least 54 percent of mass shootings

Even when strangers are targeted instead of family members, there are connections between mass shootings and domestic violence: while most mass shootings occur in the home, the shooters in one-third of the 46 mass shootings that took place entirely in public between 2009 and 2016 had a history of violence against women. 

There is also a troubling link between domestic violence and homelessness: 1 in 4 women is homeless because of violence committed against her, and more than 92 percent of homeless mothers have experienced severe physical and/or sexual abuse during their lifetime. According to the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, domestic violence has consistently been among the leading causes of family homelessness in New York City. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Domestic violence also prevents the full and successful participation of women in the workforce. The medical, criminal justice, and lost productivity costs of intimate partner violence exceed $590 billion per year. Victims of intimate partner violence lose a total of eight million days of paid work each year. More than half of all victims of intimate partner violence lose their jobs due to reasons stemming from the abuse.

The two landmark pieces of legislation that have been instrumental in preventing gender-based violence — the Violence Against Women Act and the Family Violence Prevention & Services Act — haven’t been reauthorized since 2014. We see first-hand the critical difference that federal funding for housing, childcare, domestic violence, workforce development, and other services makes in communities served by YWCAs. Given the lack of urgency on the part of federal lawmakers to reauthorize these critical programs, we urge Governors to step up. 

Governors need to expand access to safe, decent, affordable, and fair housing so that victims of abuse aren’t faced with the impossible choice of staying home with their abuser or risk homelessness. State budgets need to fund housing experts to help survivors access available resources and housing options beyond shelters, and look for other ways to support victims virtually. Governors should offer comprehensive, paid family leave for all public employees and encourage private employers to do the same. 

Governors can protect survivors and communities from gun violence by prohibiting the purchase of firearms by abusers convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses and requiring abusers to relinquish their firearms when they are convicted of a domestic violence offense. In recognizing the impact of systemic racism on Black, Brown, and Indigenous survivors of domestic violence, all Governors should create a safety net of culturally competent services. 

Our society is paying for domestic violence with our money and our lives. It is both a moral and economic imperative that all lawmakers treat intimate partner violence as the public health crisis that it is an act swiftly to protect and empower women. We will all be better off when all of us have the opportunity to thrive.

Alejandra Y. Castillo, CEO of YWCA USA, the nation’s largest network of domestic and sexual violence service providers.