Hidden Facts

Domestic Abuse is at its Worst During the Pandemic

Most in the U.S. are on week 3 or more of “social distancing,” or perhaps even a mandated “shelter-in,” and the New York Times is now reporting on an unanticipated and tragic result of the pandemic-protection guidelines: a rise in domestic violence and child abuse.

Domestic violence is up around the world, reports the story, leaving overstretched hotlines and shelters scrambling to find help for women caught in abusive relationships.[1] In China, one woman was reportedly told that someone would be there to help her “after the crisis.” In Italy, abuse reports began to soar soon after implementation of mandatory lockdowns. “Shelters could not take them because the risk of infection was too great,” reports the Times, so local officials were told they could use empty hotel rooms as temporary places for victims to go. France and Spain soon followed suit. And on Sunday, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres wrote on Twitter, “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.”

This shouldn’t, according to many experts, have been surprising. In many ways this pandemic produces the perfect environment for abuse. Stress, financial worries, and fear of the virus itself combine in a scenario wherein individuals are living with each other literally 24/7, with nowhere to go. Tensions are high, and people snap.

Tragically, the same is to be expected for child abuse. One Texas hospital featured in a Newsweek story was reporting rising rates of child abuse weeks ago.[2] Most media stories on this trend focus on the potential for a child-abuse epidemic instead of a current reality. Unlike the victims of domestic violence, who can at least call a hotline, children literally have no outlet right now—meaning child abuse is more unseen than ever. Dr. Nina Agrawal, a child abuse pediatrician, writes in the New York Times, “Entire families are sheltering at home, often in close quarters. Anxiety about health, education and finances is high. Children aren’t seeing the teachers, counselors and other adults who would normally raise concerns about their well-being. The Covid-19 pandemic has created the conditions for a rise in child abuse that could go unchecked.”[3]

But there’s a few truths that such media reports omit. The NYT story on domestic violence focuses on husband-wife relationships, and while it’s true that yes, some husbands do abuse their wives, for the most part, marriage is a hugely protective influence for women. A report by the Heritage Foundation found that in America, married women with children suffer far less (half the rate) from both domestic abuse and violent crime than do single mothers.[4] In China, researchers discovered that women who were cohabiting were more than twice as likely as married women to experience intimate partner violence, and their injuries were far more severe.[5] Marriage and family expert W. Bradford Wilcox, summarizing another study, writes in the Washington Post, “married women are the least likely to be victimized by an intimate partner.”[6] Not only are married women safer in intimate partnerships, but they also are protected from other types of violent crimes. Wilcox continues, “The bottom line is that married women are less likely to be raped, assaulted, or robbed than their unmarried peers.”

As for children, Dr. Agrawal writes, “When there is household dysfunction—domestic violence, parental substance abuse or a mental disorder—the risk of child abuse goes up, and there’s reason to believe all of these things will increase during this pandemic.” She writes of sexual abuse in particular, saying that one in four girls is sexually abused before the age of 18, and that the perpetrator is typically a “family member in the child’s home.” “Too often,” Agrawal writes, “children disclose the abuse to their mothers but the perpetrator remains in the home because he is the primary breadwinner.”

The impression one might get from reading this story is that the home is a fragile place for children, where adults routinely physically assault and sexually abuse them. The reality, however, is that children living in homes with their married, biological parents are safer than any other category of children. It is children in broken homes who are at increased risk. As Wilcox summarizes, “girls and boys are significantly more likely to be abused when they are living in a cohabiting household with an unrelated adult—usually their mother’s boyfriend.” Here, he quotes the Fourth Annual Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, which finds, “only 0.7 per 1,000 children living with two married biological parents were sexually abused, compared to 12.1 per 1,000 children living with a single parent who had an unmarried partner.”[7] According to this study, “Children living with their married biological parents universally had the lowest rate, whereas those living with a single parent who had a cohabiting partner . . . had the highest rate in all maltreatment categories. Compared to children living with married biological parents, those whose single parent had a live-in partner had more than 8 times the rate of maltreatment overall, over 10 times the rate of abuse, and nearly 8 times the rate of neglect.”

These are trying times, and to be sure, typical risk factors for domestic violence and child abuse are colliding in a perfect storm scenario. And certainly, there are indeed children who are more at risk because they do not have access to educators or other adults who would help them. But the media does us a disservice when they tell gut-wrenching stories of abuse that focus on married women, or imply that children can only be safe when they see a variety of professionals several times a week.

The statistics tell a far different story: The married, two-biological-parent family is safest for both women and children. 


[1] Amanda Taub, “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide,” New York Times, April 6, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-domestic-violence.html.

[2] Chantal da Silva, “Texas Hospital Child Abuse Cases Rise in COVID-19 Outbreak: ‘It’s Hard to Think That It’s Just Coincidental,” Newsweek (March 22, 2020), available at https://www.newsweek.com/texas-hospital-child-abuse-cases-rise-covid-19-outbreak-1493642.

[3] Nina Agrawal, “The Coronavirus Could Cause a Child Abuse Epidemic,” New York Times (April 7, 2020), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/opinion/coronavirus-child-abuse.html.

[4] Pat Fagan, Kirk Johnson, and Robert Rector, “Marriage: Still the Safest Place for Women and Children,” Backgrounder 1732, The Heritage Foundation (March 9, 2004), available at https://www.heritage.org/marriage-and-family/report/marriage-still-the-safest-place-women-and-children.

[5] Janet Yuen-Ha Wong et al., "A Comparison of Intimate Partner Violence and Associated Physical Injuries Between Cohabiting and Married Women: A 5-Year Medical Chart Review," BMC Public Health 16 (2016): ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5129237.

[6] W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert Fretwell Wilson, “One Way to End Violence Against Women? Married Dads,” Washington Post (June 10, 2014), available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/06/10/the-best-way-to-end-violence-against-women-stop-taking-lovers-and-get-married/.

[7] A.J. Sedla, J. Mettenburg, M. Basena, I. Petta, K. McPherson, A. Greene, and S. Li, “Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS–4): Report to Congress,” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, 2010, available at https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/nis4_report_congress_full_pdf_jan2010.pdf.

is the managing editor of the Howard Center's quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.

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