April 8, 2020

For most people, avoiding public spaces and working from home makes them feel protected during the COVID-19 crisis, but for victims of domestic violence, home can often be an unsafe place.

Financial hardship, social isolation, and the inability to escape an abuser increases the risk of domestic violence, according to Carey Watson, MD, regional medical director of Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s Family Violence Prevention Program. The program has increased telehealth services for domestic abuse survivors as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Historically, data has shown an increased rate of domestic violence around natural disasters,” Dr. Watson said. “I expect to see more cases in the following months.”

Although it’s too early to access aggregated data showing an upward trend of incidents, Dr. Watson has had an uptick in referral requests from her colleagues for patients experiencing intimate partner violence.

Christina So, communications director for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a leading resource for survivors, said the organization has received more than 2,000 COVID-19-related calls, 329 of which came from California. This may seem low, but So said victims may be unable to report abuse when they are in close proximity to their partners.

“After previous crises, it was when people started returning to work or school and were further apart from their abusers that they had the safety to reach out for support,” she said.

Abusers use any excuse to enforce power and control, including the current pandemic, explained Dr. Watson. The hotline has had survivors report events where their abuser used COVID-19 as a scare tactic to keep them from seeing their children and family.

Access to Services

An important aspect of violence prevention is a survivor’s access to services, which is currently challenging. Dr. Watson said she is proud that Kaiser Permanente’s leadership included domestic abuse prevention in its larger COVID-19 response, including a transition to telehealth services.

“We are doing as much as we can virtually,” said Dr. Watson, who is an ob-gyn for The Permanente Medical Group at the Kaiser Permanente Antioch Medical Center. “Patient resources are very similar to before the crisis, they are just offered by phone or video.”

Dr. Watson is conducting 70 percent of her appointments by phone or virtually, as are most other physicians. She noted that patients who need an office appointment are still able to get one, and if a survivor is assaulted, Kaiser Permanente medical offices and emergency departments are open to them.

Comprehensive Care

Part of the comprehensive care provided by the Family Violence Prevention Program is referring patients to mental health professionals, government resources, and community partners.

Kaiser Permanente’s Connect 2 Care Telepsychiatry Program, which serves patients across Northern California, is a resource for survivors. Through the program, members call their local mental health or psychiatry departments. Non-urgent phone or video appointments are then booked with the Connect 2 Care Telepsychiatry Center.

Additionally, the hotline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-799-7233, through online chat at thehotline.org, or by texting LOVEIS to 22522. Dr. Watson frequently refers her patients to the Family Justice Center Alliance, a program of one of the leading domestic violence prevention nonprofits in the U.S. It offers legal advice, shelter arrangements, and job placement. Although services at each location differ, many offer virtual resources.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to connect with survivors in any way that is safe, said Dr. Watson.

“Every virtual visit is a valuable opportunity to connect with patients, learn about their mental health, and ask directly about abuse to get them the help they need.”

This story originally appeared in Inside KP