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The Holidays and Domestic Violence

The Numbers May Lie

Do you remember hearing that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from outer space?

This is a piece of trivia that has been passed along since I can remember.  It gets repeated so much that it is very possible that it is the first thing you think of when someone mentions the Great Wall of China.  The unfortunate thing is that it is not true.  It isn’t even close to being true.  There are many man-made objects that are visible from outer space.  For the most part, the Great Wall of China doesn’t even qualify as one of them.  The inaccuracy has just made the rounds in our proverbial game of “Telephone” for so long, that it gets regurgitated as fact.

Surprisingly, a similar phenomenon may be occurring when it comes to reports of domestic violence over the holiday season.  Every year around this time, we see articles about how there are so many more 911 calls and calls to shelters between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.  A study by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence states that this may be another case of something that “feels true” turning into the official narrative.  

The study looked at calls made to the National Domestic Violence Hotline between 2004 and 2013.  It shows that, not only do calls not increase, but they actually significantly decrease over the holidays.  Using the data from 2013 as one example, the average seventeen-day period had the hotline receiving 12,150 calls, while the same amount of time from December 15th through January 1st had just shy of 11,000 calls.  These numbers held up consistently over the decade-long course of the research (National DV hotline holiday calls Comparative Data 2014).

Violence Free Colorado indicates that the perception may be caused by, “anecdotal and opinion pieces reflecting the experiences of advocates at a particular shelter or law enforcement agencies in a given community” (FAQ: Does domestic violence increase during the holidays? 2014).

The Sad Caveat 

The analytics may actually show that domestic violence calls decrease at a sizeable level over the holidays, but anyone who is a survivor or ally in the fight against intimate-partner violence knows that abuse isn’t solely measured in phone calls.  

The statistics will never include the call that wasn’t made, because a mother didn’t want the police to show up Christmas night and ruin her child’s holiday memories.  We can’t calculate how many women reached out to family members at Thanksgiving Dinner, only to be told that she must have done something wrong.  From our own personal experiences, we all know that the first instance of abuse is not often the one that will cause a woman to reach out to a shelter.  

Simply put, victims may actually experience more abuse around the holidays, but it is not indicated in the data.  As a matter of fact, Violence Free Colorado did share some contradictory research to their findings that calls decrease from late-November until the end of the year.  In 2010, for example, a study indicated that large cities in the United States did see significant increases in domestic violence incidents on New Year’s Day.  This could also be anecdotal, but it illustrates the inconsistencies that will always exist when attempting to examine domestic violence rates.  There is just too much underreporting.  

The Exception to the Rule

Even when reports of abuse are lower than normal, even one report is too many.  Every call to a shelter, hotline, or law enforcement agency that happens on Christmas represents a holiday ruined.  It represents a crying child.  It represents a family potentially ruined.  Some areas do experience increases in domestic violence calls.

In Lincoln, Nebraska, Kay Mathews serves as program director for The Friendship Home and Voices of Hope.  Mathews has noticed an increase in violence reports this time of year, and she believes that allies have played a part in this phenomenon.  She thinks that friends and family members have more contact with victims, and that they may see warning signs.  

According to Mathews, “We typically see an uptick toward the end of the year and into January when it’s all just blown up, and people are having a difficult time continuing to cope.”

Mathews notes, “It’s that holiday that’s so joyful for so many of us, but is an ordeal for someone experiencing domestic violence to get through,” and that many victims may stay in abusive situations for their kids (Bernt, 2021).

In Lincoln, reports of abuse are up 6% in 2021 over the rates of the past five years.  Mathews thinks that COVID is, understandably, playing a part in those increased numbers.  “We saw more access, more people trying to access services and resources from us, but fewer of them being able to plan to leave because their person is in the same house with them, or having access to a telephone that they can’t hear or that they can go through their text messages and try to find them” (Bernt, 2021)

Since the pandemic has affected every other aspect of life, we shouldn’t necessarily expect trends to continue in the same direction as pre-2020.  The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice released analysis back in February of this year that showed an increase of 8.1% following the initial lockdown orders.  

While being interviewed by CNN, Alex Piquero stated, “Our analysis confirms the initial fears we had at the outset of the pandemic.”  

Piquero is the chair of the University of Miami department of sociology and is the lead author of the analysis.  He added, “In my mind, I think that 8% is a floor and not a ceiling.  I think the problem is actually worse than we actually know right now” (Rodriguez, 2021)

It will take time to know the ramifications the regulations, new strains, and (let’s be honest) the politics surrounding the pandemic have had on the analytics.     

Silver Lining

We may never know if the rate of abuse truly increases after Thanksgiving.  That doesn’t mean that the perception can’t potentially alter the larger narrative in a positive way.  After sharing the data that shows drops in domestic violence rates this time of year, Violence Free Colorado acknowledged that it is a story the media parrots every November and December.  The organization believes that this attention can cause friends and relatives to be on the lookout for signs of abuse.  The added stressors of the holidays could also lead survivors to be more willing to reach out to domestic violence organizations with help coping with the hectic nature of the season.

The added attention can also lead to increases in donations to domestic violence organizations.  People already tend to feel more generous during the holidays, and having the news discussing the topic when people are in the giving spirit can have a long-term positive impact.  

Just last month, many of you donated to Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence during Giving Tuesday.  These donations assist us in helping Legacy Families, and allow us to continue to speak out against abuse.  If the numbers are wrong, but the end result is positive, that is a trade we will make to promote the cause.  

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