Domestic violence may invade online shifted supports for victims, U Of A researcher finds

Researchers studied how the interplay between service providers, technology and media determines the safety of victims seeking help via online resources

As service providers shift their resources online in response to the pandemic, victims of domestic violence face new challenges in accessing help when home is not a safe space. 

Wendy Aujla, a sociology PhD candidate and criminology program advisor at the U of A, discusses in her latest research the potential for domestic abuse victims to be tracked, controlled and further isolated if service providers are not cautious of the resources they offer online. She also identified the importance of service providers working with the media and technologists to understand how virtual platforms can be misused by perpetrators of domestic violence. 

“One of the key takeaways from the [research] we are advocating for is that this relationship between service providers, technologists and media personnel is really important at a time like right now,” Aujla said.  

In order to address the connection between service providers, technology and media, Aujla worked alongside co-authors Danielle C. Slakoff from California State University’s criminal justice division and Eva PenzeyMoog of the safety inclusion project based in Chicago. Each co-author contributed their expertise to publish the piece which details the availability and quality of online supports and media reporting as well as recommendations to better their practices. 

Although service providers have continued offering resources remotely due to COVID-19, allowing victims to access help, these means of communication can be utilized by perpetrators to facilitate their abusive behaviours. Aujla noted specific cases of abusers tracking the victim’s internet history or monitoring their phone calls through joint phone plans.   

These behaviours fall under the category of coercive control, which is of particular concern during this period of isolation. As Aujla explained, coercive control is a pattern of “microaggressions” used to monitor and manipulate the victim’s actions. It can be exerted through verbal and psychological means, as well as through technology such as by tracking an individual’s whereabouts via home cameras.    

“Coercive control is a form of domestic violence, so it’s not just about looking for those physical forms of abuse [and] it’s not just about having the physical evidence of abuse,”Aujla explained. “Verbal abuse is equally a form of domestic violence and I think that victims, when they read domestic violence definitions, sometimes don’t see themselves in these definitions.”

For victims facing coercive control, utilizing remote resources possess not only a safety concern but an accessibility issue. Individuals may lack sufficient internet connection or resort to making calls while sitting in their garage to escape the perpetrator.    

With the help of her research, Aujla hopes service providers take advantage of technological resources to continue supporting victims of domestic violence while also being mindful of how violence looks different for every victim. 

“We can’t have one-size-fit-all approaches even when it comes to the way that we make our services available for technology,” Aujla said. 

She is encouraged to already see steps in the right direction with greater turnout during online educational workshops addressing domestic violence as well as the implementation of quick-exit features on service provider’s websites.   

To complement the work being done by service providers, Aujla believes media outlets reporting on domestic violence could do more to advocate for victims. She emphasized the importance of media working in conjunction with service providers to not only publish accurate statistics, but to keep the general public informed regarding the availability of resources.

“With the media, we really signalled in this piece that it’s really important for them to get the story right,” Aujla said. “It’s not just about saying that domestic violence is on the rise.” 

Specifically, Aujla believes the media could play a crucial role in informing people of the safety protocols being developed by organizations such as the Canadian Women’s Foundation or Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters. These organizations have recently implemented protocols for online communication involving code phrases such as “we’re out of milk” or hand gestures that signal a victim may be in a precarious situation.  

Throughout the research article, the authors acknowledged that while the pandemic has played a role in bringing domestic violence to the forefront and shaped its relationship with technology, domestic violence has always been prevalent. 

“One of the things we were really careful and mindful of is to not say that COVID-19 is the cause of domestic violence,” Aujla explained. “We know that domestic violence is existing in homes prior to even the pandemic — it’s just exacerbated because of COVID.”

While Aujla is hopeful that her research will be used to improve the quality of resources being extended to victims, she believes there is still significant progress to be made in the sector.      

“Based on some of the research that’s being done in Canada, every two and a half days a woman in Canada is murdered and that statistic is not just because of a pandemic,” Aujla said. “I think it’s really important people remember the pandemic is not causing domestic violence and it’s something we need to do a better job of understanding [or] even re-evaluating the way we do this work.”

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