The Holiday Spike in Domestic Abuse

It's not new, and it's getting worse this year.

For Peg Hacskaylo and her team at the District Alliance for Safe Housing in Washington, D.C., the holiday season is an especially hectic time. Working to prevent domestic violence is already a trying profession, she says, but the shelter will “typically always see an uptick in activity right around New Year’s Day.”

2014 shone a glaring spotlight on violence against women, including the incident with NFL player Ray Rice, the contentious Rolling Stone article profiling an alleged, then retracted, campus gang rape at the University of Virginia, and the “No More” PSAs playing during high-profile television events. In the days after the footage of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée emerged, calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline jumped 84 percent, according to Katie Ray Jones, chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

For the District Alliance for Safe Housing, “we’re expecting the usual uptick around the New Year, and with an already increasing amount of activity this year, it could be doubly bad this New Year’s Day,” Hacksaylo said. However, a look at domestic violence research around New Year's Day can paint a very confusing picture. The 2014 report looking at incoming calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline from 2004-2013 shows the 570 calls received between Thanksgiving until New Years Day to be well below the average rate of 675 calls per day in 2013.

On the other hand, a 2005 study using Idaho as a sample state showed that police incident reports involving domestic violence were 2.7 times higher on New Year’s Day than a normal daily average. And a 2010 study from the University of Pennsylvania looking at calls to law enforcement involving intimate partner violence in an unnamed major U.S. city found New Year’s Day also had a significantly higher amount of calls than the daily average—with 56 calls on New Year’s Day, compared to 34 for the average day.

So why is there such a discrepancy between what local law enforcement and resource centers report and what the numbers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline show?

A likely answer to the contradictory picture is that victims are simply exhausted after the holidays, and are just looking for a short-term solution, like calling the police or walking into the local shelter. The national hotline, on the other hand, is often used as a resource for victims who want to understand all their options in order to leave an abusive situation permanently, Hacskaylo said.

After the holidays, calls to the national hotline start increasing 5 percent over the first two weeks of the year. This creates a bit of a domino effect: Survivors will reach out to police and local shelters first, then seek help from national resources.

“Survivors will often reach out to law enforcement or a local shelter to immediately resolve a violent situation that’s happening, but it can take a bit of time before they’re ready to reach out the national hotline,” said Kenya Fairley, senior director of capacity building and education at the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, an organization devoted to policy research on issues related to domestic violence.

It isn’t uncommon to see women leave a shelter around the holidays to normalize things—especially if children are in the picture—to be close to family or a faith community, only to come right back once the festivities are over, Fairley said. Some abusers will also be able to keep violent behavior under wraps when loved ones are around for festivities, only to have an outburst once the holidays are over, prompting survivors to ask, “Is this really how I want to spend another year?”

There is also the issue of research funding—there just hasn’t been enough money to do an exhaustive report on exactly how many people are reaching out, the different channels they may be using, where in the U.S. they are, and who exactly they’re contacting. And frankly, domestic violence advocates are okay with this. “Any extra money we do have, let me use it on transitional housing, let me use it to put someone back on their feet. For people working in the shelters, domestic violence is pervasive all the time, I don’t need a report to tell me that,” said Kim Pentico, director of the economic justice project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Most domestic violence shelters are a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year operation. So while activity can slow down around Thanksgiving and Christmas, there is still double the workload for advocates working during the holidays. Every year, The National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women—which publishes research and resources on domestic and sexual violence—teams up with the National Resource Center on Domestic violence to publish technical assistance guides filled with useful information, statistics, and tips for those working in shelters over the holidays.

“There is so much to keep in mind. How are you keeping kids engaged? Are you baking cookies? Are you helping to prepare meals? Are you decorating? If so, are you using religiously themed decorations? Are you overseeing the influx of volunteers around this time of year? Advocates are always juggling all these things around the holidays, and all the while, they’d like to be at home with their families too,” Fairley said.

For those survivors just trying to have a pleasant holiday with their loved ones, it is often a test of “always putting on a happy face for your friends and family,” said one survivor at District Alliance for Safe Housing, who asked to remain unnamed. “You are always just trying to protect the person who is hurting you.” Another survivor emphasized the need to “not act up around my family.”

If the increased media scrutiny around violence against women has helped survivors leave bad situations this year, the recovering economy has also had a hand in the steady increase in calls and walk-ins to shelters. “People were staying in bad relationships because they couldn’t afford to not be in them,” Pentico said. “A better economy is better for everyone. Yes, more women than ever are seeking shelter, but at least she’s leaving that situation.”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has also recently added online chat and text capabilities. There’s no hard data on how many people are using these resources and when they’re using it yet, but the hope is the information will be ready in the coming year. “We don’t want to post a few months worth of data from the text/online chat service, with varying hours of operation, along with years worth of data from phone calls to the Hotline which operates 24/7/365,” Fairley said.

Even without hard numbers, Fairley says the text/online chat option has made reaching out easier. After all, calling a hotline requires having a verbal conversation, which can be dangerous for some victims. “They may find some privacy to text back and forth with an advocate to explore options for help,” she said. In any case, advocates will have their hands full this New Year’s.

This is a bit of a double-edged sword for advocates. While it is disheartening to see shelters fill up and hotlines ringing off the hook, women are realizing more than ever they shouldn’t have to put up with abuse and are in positions to leave bad situations. “We’ve gotten to a point where things may plateau after a while, but we’re never going to see the level of activity we saw, say, two years ago," Farley said.