#ProjectConnect: The Uptake of Digital Innovations in Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (DV/SA) Organizations During the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Dr. Heather Storer & Eva Nyerges
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, concern was raised by Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (DV/SA) organizations regarding the safety of survivors of abuse sheltering with abusive partners and experiencing heightened isolation from support networks. Human service agencies were also forced to quickly adapt their service delivery systems to digital platforms in respond to evolving client needs and shifting community landscapes. Initially this study set out to interview participants from national DV/SA organizations to explore how these organizations were employing technology to facilitate youth from underrepresented backgrounds’ service utilization. However, because of the pandemic, we decided to augment our research aims by also exploring DV/SA providers perceptions of how the COVID-19 pandemic influenced survivors’ safety, and to construct knowledge regarding how organizations utilized digital technologies to respond to shifting service needs.
Across the interviews, organizational participants shared concerns regarding client safety during the pandemic that stemmed from clients living with their abusers, increased opportunities for tech abuse, heightened external DV triggers, and increased challenges accessing in-person services. In terms of heightened abuse for example one participant shared “the forced isolation has increased. So we are not seeing an increase of calls, what we're seeing is an escalation of the abuse.” To respond to these challenges, DV/SA providers shifted previously in-person services to virtual formats using video conferencing software, revised pre-pandemic safety-planning practices, implemented discussions of tech safety with clients, and adapted primary prevention programming to digital formats. For example, one participant commented, “We're very reliant on technology now. Ss far as client services, it's very rare that we provide in person client services…All of our counseling is via video chat. Our youth programming is via video chat. All of our sexual health education has been suspended until schools are ready and we've had to adapt to doing that in a technological way. I'd say we're, we're doing the best that we…We've pivoted really quickly, but there's always the feeling that you're leaving people out.” Several discussed internal discussions regarding adopting telehealth platforms, though few had done so. A small number of organizations expressed they had robust technological infrastructure before the pandemic, so they didn't need to shift their practices significantly.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities, including the prevalence of GBV and digital surveillance. However, the results of this study also demonstrate that the pandemic heightened opportunities for organizational learning about the potential for technology and catalyzed the uptake of such technologies for the majority of DV/SA organizations. While many of the interview participants expressed concern regarding the use of technology to facilitate abuse and compromise client confidentiality, they also acknowledged the importance of developing internal capacity to ameliorate such harms and the potential of emerging digital technologies to facilitate service utilization. As one participant stated, “a lot of people don't feel comfortable calling a hotline. There's something very intimidating about that…. So the ability to step into the conversation and then step away when you want to, um, to not have to vocally share yourself, you know, that extra level of protection is so, so important… Having access to technology and access to the internet can be lifesaving for a lot of people.”