Violence spiked during the pandemic: Victims need our help

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As Americans continue to weather struggles brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, tens of thousands among us are suffering trauma inflicted by a related enemy: violence exacerbated by the harsh realities of COVID-19.

Statistics tell the story. Across the United States in 2020, homicides surged, assaults ticked up, and domestic violence spiked, according to research for the Council on Criminal Justice. Each case had a human victim, people wounded or killed by violence spawned amid the isolation, economic hardship and societal shutdowns caused by COVID-19.

Now Congress has an opportunity to respond to the carnage and boost badly needed resources for victims. Federal lawmakers should put aside their partisan differences and approve three pending measures to help those traumatized by crime.

This week represents an ideal time for action, as the nation pauses to remember and recognize those whose lives have been touched by crime. In April each year, National Crime Victims’ Rights Week honors survivors and marshals support for services to help them. For 2021, the challenges of COVID-19 add urgency to this important observation.

“Victims were often isolated from family, friends, and support systems, and victim service providers grappled with strained resources and formidable barriers to victim outreach and care,” noted Katherine Darke Schmitt, acting director of the federal Office for Victims of Crime, sponsor of the events this week.

The pandemic also illuminated longstanding inequities that affect victims and survivors from communities of color. Like the rates of illness and death caused by COVID-19, the ballooning violence of 2020 took a greater toll on these communities. Already more likely to be crime victims, people in Black and Latino neighborhoods faced double jeopardy as COVID-driven violence rose.

While pandemic influences exacerbated most categories of crime, abuse of children stands out for us. During lockdowns, kids were at home with potential abusers 24/7. Combine that with severe economic strain and some parents’ increased use of drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms, and you have ingredients ripe for abuse. Distance learning also played a role, isolating children from in-person contact with teachers and other school workers who could have reported suspected abuse. 

Adult sexual assaults almost certainly increased during the pandemic, although cases reported to hospitals actually dropped over the previous year, one study found. The authors of that report concluded that while the most violent cases — those involving strangulation and firearms — had increased and were reported to law enforcement, victims in other cases opted to forego medical care during lockdowns, and thus weren’t reflected in the numbers.

While lockdowns were critical to curbing the coronavirus, the term conveys powerful meaning for those of us who work with crime victims. Many endured isolation from neighbors, friends and relatives who could serve as a support system, or potential escape route. Remove that support and the peril escalates.

To bolster and stabilize funding for victims, Congress must act on three bills that now hang in the balance. One, H.R. 1652, draws on a recommendation by the Task Force on Federal Priorities and would shore up the national Crime Victims Fund. The fund, established in 1984, serves as the primary source of federal dollars for thousands of victim-support programs nationwide. The bill has passed the House and awaits approval in the Senate.

Another measure, H.R. 1620, would reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, landmark legislation authored by then-Sen. Joe Biden as part of the 1994 Crime Bill. The Act expired in 2018, and one provision in the reauthorization — which faces opposition from some Senate Republicans — would provide $40 million to support culturally specific programs developed by and for communities of color.

The third key bill is H.R. 2119, the reauthorization of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Improvement Act. More than 1,500 local domestic violence programs rely on this funding to serve more than 1.3 million victims annually. H.R. 2119 also provides money earmarked for culturally specific services, which are a lifeline for those in need.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the health challenge of our times, and we’ve seen the crime spike that accompanied it intensify trauma for victims — especially those in communities of color. As we recognize survivors of violence this week, let’s go one critical step further and give them the real help they need.

Janelle Melohn is director of the Iowa Crime Victim Assistance Division and serves on the Board of Trustees of the Council on Criminal Justice.

Karma Cottman is executive director of Ujima, Inc: The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community.

Tags COVID-19 pandemic Crime Crime Victims Fund Crimes against women Domestic violence Family Violence Prevention Joe Biden Sexual assault Violence Violence Against Women Act

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