The Impact Of COVID-19 On Survivors Of Domestic Violence

Collaborative research to benefit domestic violence survivors during COVID-19.

Jamie D. Aten Ph.D.

With quarantine and social distancing during COVID-19, survivors of domestic violence face a new obstacle in receiving the care that they need. Meredith Bagwell-Gray, MSSW, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Social Welfare at the University of Kansas. Her research focuses on post-traumatic growth and healing for survivors of intimate partner and sexual violence, particularly in terms of women’s sexual and reproductive health. She also examines survivors’ help-seeking and safety planning strategies, including engagement with health care, social services, and criminal legal systems, and the effectiveness of technology-based interventions. In her current project, she is testing an intervention to reduce survivors’ risk of cervical cancer.

Source: Meredith Bagwell-Gray

Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?

Meredith Bagwell-Gray: In 2006 I began volunteering at a non-profit agency serving survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. Volunteering required attending a 40-hour training program to understand the dynamics of domestic violence and learn trauma-informed approaches to working with survivors. This initial training and my early volunteer experiences launched me into a career centered on preventing violence and providing support and advocacy for survivors. I pursued a master’s degree in social work so that I could do this work full time, which led to a variety of positions, ranging from administrative roles (managing a volunteer program and the 40-hour volunteer trainings) to direct client services (providing counseling as a child and family therapist). Along the way I pursued a PhD because I love social work research and education. I can discover what works in terms of intervention and prevention strategies and propose solutions grounded in survivors’ lived experiences. I also get to teach the next generations of social work students, passing on lessons learned in my research through teaching. When COVID-19 hit the U.S. in March, I reached out to a colleague, Erin Bartholmey, Chief Clinical Leader at Chrysalis Shelter for Victims of Domestic Violence, to co-write this commentary on the impact of COVID-19 on survivors of domestic violence. The goal of writing it together was to understand how we could each contribute as a researcher and a practitioner to help this vulnerable population during the pandemic.

JA: What was the focus of your study?

MBG: Erin and I co-wrote this commentary as a back-and-forth dialogue. We discussed her current observations of the impact of COVID-19 on clients at her agency. We then discussed opportunities for researchers and practitioners to collaborate. For example, we can ask questions directly relevant to survivors and seek to understand their experiences so that we can improve services, especially when COVID-19 and social distancing measures change the way services are being delivered.article continues after advertisement

JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings?

MBG: The fun thing about this paper is that, since it was a dialogue in which we each answered a question and then asked the other a follow-up question, we let the conversation flow naturally. I initially thought it would be much more practice-oriented, but it turned into this truly inspiring piece on research and practice and the importance of collaboration. Now I am looking forward to collaborating with practitioners and survivors alike to ask some research questions directly relevant to service provision. This is a new environment, where so many services are moving to e-health and telehealth. And, as Erin said in the commentary, we still don’t know how the short-term and long-term impacts of this collective trauma of COVID-19 will shape survivors’ experiences, though we know anecdotally that it is compounding the complexity of their situations and impeding their ability to rely on social support, seek services, to establish safety. So, there are plenty of opportunities for those researcher and practitioner collaborations to move our knowledge forward and improve prevention and intervention efforts for the ultimate benefit of survivors. 

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19? How can readers use what you found to help others amidst this pandemic?

MBG: If you are reading this and you are a survivor, know that domestic violence agencies are considered essential service providers, so they are still open and providing services. There are advocates and service providers who are there for you. You can call or chat with an advocate by reaching out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

If you are someone who wants to help survivors, you can reach out to your local domestic violence shelter and ask if they are taking donations for COVID-19 relief. I know the shelter in my area has a COVID-19 relief campaign. With the economic downturn right now due to the pandemic, many survivors cannot get jobs to secure safe and stable housing. Financial and housing resources are so critical to survivor safety.

If you are a researcher or practitioner reading this, I hope that you are inspired like me to find innovative ways to work together to improve services for survivors with our new environment. I would appreciate learning about the ways you are collaborating and the outcomes of such partnerships—so feel free to reach out and connect with me.

JA: What are you currently working on?

MBG: I currently have a research project testing the impact of a trauma-informed sexual safety planning intervention for survivors of intimate partner violence. The goal of the intervention is to reduce survivors’ risk for cervical cancer and other negative sexual health outcomes as well as promote sexual health as they heal from trauma and violence. In the next stage, I am developing online and app-based modules for the intervention and testing them for acceptability among the target audience. I am hoping that this strategy increases accessibility for survivors and still engages them in a meaningful way. I am asking, what does it look like to provide trauma-informed intervention activities through a virtual platform? This project is especially timely right now given the need to stay socially connected during a time of social distancing. You can read more about it here.


Bagwell-Gray, M. E., & Bartholmey, E. (2020). Safety and services for survivors of intimate partner violence: A researcher–practitioner dialogue on the impact of COVID-19. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(S1), S205–S207.

About the Author

Jamie Aten, Ph.D. is the Founder and Executive Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL).

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