By Anna Liz Nichols, Michigan Advance
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, many domestic violence service providers in Michigan were vocal about their concerns for victims being in lockdown with their abusers. Coming out of the height of the pandemic, some are worried that the situation still remains dire.
“The abuse has gotten more lethal and more cruel,” said Mechelle Donahoo, director of Victim Services for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.
Donahoo said not only is she seeing more fatalities, but incidents where children or pets are facing violence in addition to other victims in the household are increasing.
Wayne County and the rest of Southeast Michigan have had high profile domestic violence stories this year, including the murder of Oakland County’s chief health officer Calandra Green who police say was shot by her husband and the kidnapping and killing of 2-year-old Wynter Cole Smith, the daughter of the accused’s ex-girlfriend whom he also allegedly assaulted.
Research out of University of Michigan suggests that the role of stressors brought on by the pandemic shutdown such as the loss of employment and social supports may have contributed to the heightened violence.
“New or increased IPV (intimate partner violence) was significantly more prevalent among those who were essential workers, pregnant, unable to afford rent, unemployed/underemployed or had recent changes to their job, had partners with recent changes to employment, and those who had gotten tested or tested positive for COVID-19,’’ the study found.
It’s a trend not lost on law enforcement. Warren Police Commissioner William Dwyer, a 60-year law enforcement veteran and the top officer in Michigan’s third largest city, said incidents are more severe and more dangerous. “Based on my experience in law enforcement, domestic violence has gotten more violent over the past years,’’ he said. “They’re escalating.”
“I don’t think people realize, in Wayne County alone, we’re serving over 7,000 survivors a year,” said Lori Kitchen-Buschel, executive director of First Step resource center.
Annual data from Michigan State Police shows a stark decrease in the number of domestic violence victims from 101,171 reported in 2010, to 69,765 in 2022. However, fatalities rose during the same period from 89 deaths in 2010 to 101 in 2022, despite the decline.
The agency defines domestic violence as “a pattern of learned behavior in which one person uses physical, sexual, and emotional abuse to control another person.”
The University of Michigan study reaffirms the severity of abuse victims are facing.
“I remember, just like being at home and seeing all these news reports about this shadow pandemic of domestic violence and how there was this huge surge and I kind of was thinking initially ‘Oh, we’re gonna see a big surge in prevalence,’” study co-author Sarah Peitzmeier said. “And then it was more nuanced than that. I was a little surprised that we didn’t necessarily see a surge in prevalence, but we did see that dramatic surge in severity.”
The study surveyed more than 1,000 Michigan women and transgender/nonbinary individuals from June to August 2020. It found that about 15% of respondents experienced intimate partner violence, which Peitzmeier said was similar to pre-pandemic prevalence, but 10% of respondents said violence from their partner increased.
In addition, 1 in 3 pregnant respondents experienced intimate partner violence, as well as 1 in 4 with a toddler at home, Peitzmeier noted.
“My take on it is that the pandemic doesn’t turn anyone into an abuser. Probably the more likely scenario is that there was a low level of abuse before the pandemic, and then with the constellation of factors with lockdown and all the stress of the pandemic, those low-level abuse cases then escalated into more severe abuse,” Peitzmeier said.
Dwyer said domestic violence calls are particularly dangerous for responding officers and he believes drugs and alcohol are prevalent in the majority of cases he’s seen.
“Those are the ones that we experienced more police officers being shot (and) killed, in responding to domestic violence cases and that’s been for decades,” said Dwyer, who is believed to be the longest serving law enforcement official in the state.
On Wednesday, the Violence Policy Center (VPC) published its annual “When Men Murder Women” study examining violence against women and gun violence. This year it used crime data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from the past 25 years to draw attention to national trends.
A total of 45,817 females were murdered by a male in a single victim/single offender incident from 1996 to 2020, the report says. Though not all these deaths were definitively domestic violence-related, of the 42,493 deaths where there was more information collected, 92% of the females who were killed knew their killers. Of those victims, 61% were killed by an intimate partner, or 24,083 females.
In this study, “intimate partner” is defined as the “victim’s husband, common-law husband, ex-husband, or boyfriend”, but domestic violence has quite a few definitions typically including current or former romantic partners.
“Violence against women is a significant public health issue with concerning upward trends in recent homicide rates. Findings from the past 25 years of When Men Murder Women have consistently shown that women are most at risk from men they know. These men are often a spouse or other intimate acquaintance armed with a gun,” the study said.
And though the “typical” victim of domestic violence is portrayed as a woman, with data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicating 1 in 3 women report experiencing severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, men can also be victims. CDC data shows 1 in 4 men report experiencing severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
The VPC did not include a statewide ranking of females killed by males in single victim/single offender incidents as it has in the past, citing a change in the FBI’s collection of data. Michigan has appeared just once in 25 years, ranking 10th in 2013 with 73 females killed.
But advocates say there’s no doubt that violence has spiked since the pandemic.
Said Kitchen-Buschel: “I think that people don’t understand the significance of the epidemic of violence that we are having in our communities. I think everybody knows somebody, when they spend time thinking about it.’’
For Betsy Huggett, director of the domestic and sexual violence center at Diane Peppler Resource Center in Sault Ste. Marie, the recent rise in domestic homicides are the first that she’s seen since she started work at the center in 2014.
“We actually had two domestic violence homicides (one) in August of last year and (one) in August the year before(…) two domestic violence homicides, two years in a row,” Huggett said. “And the severity, it’s like almost like the audacity of perpetrators has increased to the point where they don’t believe they’re gonna get in trouble and they believe that whatever they’re telling people is what is going to be believed, and that nobody’s going to believe the survivor and therefore they’re not going to get caught.”
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