Oct. 5, 2022

UCalgary study finds increase in family violence during pandemic

Literature review discovered global COVID-19 restrictions may have increased risk factors and incidence of family violence in communities
Nicole Letourneau
Nicole Letourneau conducted a literature review during the pandemic that found family violence increased during restrictions and lockdowns. Nicole Letourneau

In a recent paper published in eClinicalMedicine reflecting the results of a rapid review of literature published up to a year after the pandemic declaration, researchers discovered that globally, COVID-19 restrictions may have increased the risk factors and incidence of family violence in communities.

“Our objective was three-fold,” explains Dr. Nicole Letourneau, PhD, professor at UCalgary Nursing and Cumming School of Medicine and lead investigator on the study. “We wanted to examine the occurrence of family violence; identify factors associated with family violence; and identify relevant recommendations from COVID-19 literature published up to one year after the pandemic was announced.”

The team reviewed 28 articles including 29 studies between December 2019 and March 21. Letourneau, a recognized expert in family violence and its effects on childhood development and the family dynamic, says the team’s review included a wider range of definitions for family violence like intimate partner violence (IPV) and CAN (child abuse and neglect).

“Additionally the value added was that we focused on the risk factors, as well as recommendations to address family violence in the context of COVID-19.”

Interestingly, the literature indicated official justice, police and emergency department records showed declines during the pandemic. But, comments Letourneau, self-reported studies of community households show a rise in family violence.  

Restrictions may have increased risks

Her explanation is that restrictions may have increased many of the risks for heavily impacted families including mental health concerns, isolation, loneliness, economic vulnerability, job loss and business closures and failures. It is not reflected in official reports for three major reasons.

“We think that, due to the pandemic's unpredictability, health services were forced to adapt quickly to manage routine care, potentially making it difficult for victims to know where to access help,” Letourneau suggests.

“As it relates to kids, pandemic restrictions typically reduced children’s in-person contacts to those solely within their household, which eliminated opportunities for outsiders to notice CAN.

"And victims of IPV or CAN may have been reluctant to seek help due to fears of contracting the virus by accessing health services or the perpetrator discovering the victim’s attempts to seek help.”

Increased proximity prevents victims' seeking help

Letourneau adds that other reviews suggested increased proximity of perpetrators to victims under pandemic health restrictions, such as work-from-home requirements, may have increased coercive control and prevented victims’ seeking help.

We see that many families and relevant support systems adapted to COVID-19 over time, so impacts may have been highest during the first year.

The bottom line is that health systems worldwide need to adopt approaches to preventing family violence. “Health services need to treat victims in the context of public health restrictions and increase training for digital service usage by health and educational professionals,” recommends Letourneau.

“Parental stress, burnout, mental distress such as depression, comfort in discussing and managing COVID-19 measures, perceived social isolation, financial and occupational losses and employment change contributed to family violence. As children’s environments greatly influence their development and health outcomes, there are unintended consequences on parents’ and children’s safety. A different approach is definitely necessary if another COVID-19 wave or pandemic is to occur.” 

Nicole Letourneau is a professor and research chair in parent and child mental health, director of RESOLVE Alberta and scientific director of AVA CIHR Health Research Training Platform and a member of Owerko Centre, Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Hotchkiss Brain Institute and Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Funding for this study was provided by RESOLVE Alberta and the Emerging Leaders in the Americas Program (ELAP) which provided monies for research assistants and students.

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