How to help during the rise of domestic abuse due to social isolation

When we think about caring for people during the COVID-19 crisis, many of us think about widows, the elderly, or those already battling severe medical conditions. Pastors and ministry leaders may think about children’s ministry, streaming services, caring for people at a distance, and what weddings and funerals should look like in this season. But there's a demographic in your church who are in really difficult situations and likely won’t speak up. They're not going to reach out, because they're in an oppressive situation.

In the amount of time you read this article, approximately 170 adults will experience abuse at home.[1] We already saw these statistics played out in situations as counselors, but with people being isolated, losing jobs, financial concerns, fears, and ways of escape blocked by restrictions to contain this pandemic, domestic abuse and violence will be amplified. Those who might speak up and seek help are limited in doing so as they are stuck in the same home with their abusers.

The sad reality of the increase of domestic violence has already been seen worldwide in this pandemic. At the end of March, calls to the domestic abuse hotline in the United Kingdom went up 65%. The United Nations has called for “urgent action to combat the worldwide surge in domestic violence.” As the virus has spread in China, there has been an uptick in domestic violence reports. We should expect the same thing here domestically. In fact, Seattle has seen a 21% increase in domestic violence reports, and the local CBS news station in Sacramento reported that domestic violence calls had skyrocketed as victims have been forced to stay inside with their abusers. This is a heavy topic, in the midst of a heavy season, but we want to care for the vulnerable who are stuck in unsafe homes.

Perhaps as you read this, you are already thinking of one to two people you have a burden for. Maybe they have shared with you or maybe you’ve just noticed some things that leave you concerned. Here are some steps to provide the best level of care to the people who are increasingly vulnerable to domestic abuse during this time. 

1. Be aware: It’s easy in a season of chaos and confusion to be focused on how that affects you—your family, your home, your situation. We are to care for those things, but God also calls us as Christians to care for those who are oppressed, who don't have a voice for themselves. Start by asking God to help you be aware. In this season where we are seeing people less, we don’t want what is out of sight to be out of mind, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable. Let’s be thoughtful and praying to see opportunities to help. Reading this article is a step toward raising your level of awareness.

2. Be present: A lot of people are out in front of their houses and walking in this season. Even being visible and making our presence known is helpful so abusers don't feel as safe hiding what they're doing. In a time like this it would be really easy for them to assume they have even more control and ability to do what they want. It also allows vulnerable people stuck at home to know they aren’t alone, and that the windows aren’t all shuttered cutting them off from their neighbors. Spend some time on your driveway or porch; go for a walk on the street; be present.

3. Reach out: Even as counselors, we rarely have a woman say, “I'm in an abusive relationship.” Sometimes they are silenced by fear and shame, and at other times, they don't even realize they are in an abusive relationship. But she might disclose a small bit of the abuse by telling you what her husband did when he didn't like how dinner tasted. She might recount the incident as a normal occurrence. Hearing her story, you might realize that's not normal and not okay.

Times like this can push us to grow in our skills to care for people—in our question asking, listening, or moving toward the most vulnerable in some of these situations. Maybe call a woman from your Bible study and say, “Hey, I haven't heard from you in about a week; that's unusual. I know this is an unusual time, so I just wanted to check in. How are things going?” Ask simple but inviting questions to draw people out. 

As you talk on the phone with someone whose safety you are concerned for, ask yes or no questions. She may not be free to say very much. We may need to carefully think and prepare ahead of time to allow her the opportunity to acknowledge that something is going on that should concern us. 

Every situation is different, so you need to take great care to know the best ways to communicate. Take your cues from the vulnerable person. For some people in abuse situations, a phone call may be the best form of communication. For others, digital forms of communication might be easier to access than a phone call. For others, even private messages may be seen by the abuser. If you don’t know what are safe forms of communication, be thoughtful to keep up with them regularly in general during this time.

4. Form a safety plan: If the situation allows and it is safe to do so, ask, “What are one to three different practices we could have in place to make sure you are safe?” Safety plans are important to have before things escalate. Brad Hambrick shares how to create a safety plan on his website.

A safety plan may include helping the vulnerable person come up with a safe word. That way, if they're having a really difficult day or there is a heightened incident, they would have a word to send you that would let you know they need you to respond right away. Or, maybe it's a particular codeword you've set beforehand to indicate you should call 9-1-1. Creatively think about how you can help them signal, “I’m in distress and need help.”

Safety plans often include practices that are limited in this pandemic. Depending on where we live, our movements may be significantly restricted by the government or by wisdom in trying to keep from spreading COVID-19. Access to cash may be restricted; hotels may be closed. Developing a safety plan may take some creative problem-solving and service, but it is vital.

Safety plans will vary according to each case and available resources. Do they have family or friends nearby that would be able to be a safe place for them to go? Is there a couple in your church who has an Airbnb that isn’t being used in this season? Are there any hotels they could stay in and where you could drop off toiletries and nonperishable food? Are there resources available through a church benevolent fund? What things would they need to leave quickly?  Should they text or call someone, and when? 

As believers, we might be thinking, “What can I offer?” Maybe we don’t have finances available because we are out of work, but maybe we have extra items that someone who is fleeing in a hurry can use, or maybe we have a place for them to stay for the long haul. This isn’t just a pastor’s responsibility. We need church members with an all-hands-on-deck mentality. 

5. Provide respite: In a season like this, often an abuser’s desire for power and control are amplified, and a person who is abused has fewer opportunities for peace and shelter. Normally a wife might have eight or nine hours where her husband's not home. She may normally have opportunities to go to church or to see family as a break from the hostility, but that has changed in this season, too. The mere presence of an abuser, because of the history of volatile and harmful behavior, can be difficult. Imagine constantly being afraid of being attacked, with nowhere to go. Here are some possible ways for someone in that situation to pursue and receive a period of rest and relief.

6. Educate yourself: This is a great opportunity to begin preparing and educating yourself. Do some research. Have the numbers of local women's shelters on your speed dial. Familiarize yourself with their websites. Reach out to local domestic violence shelters, and ask what someone who leaves home quickly for a shelter is going to need. When an immediate crisis presents, you don’t want to find yourself needing to do hours of research to figure out how to help. Vulnerable women and children will need a rapid response. Don't find yourself unprepared for a crisis. These are things we, as ministry leaders, should know anyway. If COVID-19 gives us the time and forces us to do this work, then many families in our church will benefit in the future.

7. Reporting when children are involved: Many domestic abuse situations can include children. If you have any reason to believe a child is in danger, contact Child Protective Services immediately. Remember, when you call CPS you are not “pressing charges.” You are merely getting an “expert second opinion” as you allow someone experienced in abuse cases know what you know and do a risk assessment based on that information. Beyond your legal responsibility as a mandatory reporter, please don't let your fear keep you back from doing something that at the end of the day might protect a child. 

To learn more about a wise response when abuse occurs against an adult, rather than a child, key responses to physical abuse, and what happens when you call CPS, see Lessons 3, 6, and Lesson 7 of Becoming a Church that Cares well for the Abused. If you are unsure, the hotlines below can connect you with an experienced caseworker any time of the day or night, provide guidance regarding the local authorities’ role in preventing and investigating abuse, and provide support:

Even a call over something that seems suspicious may help provide some measure of relief in a situation that might be far worse than what we've even observed. Even if CPS chooses not to investigate, they can help you learn important risk factors to look for and provide guidance on how your church can help the family.

You will likely not be able to provide all the resources and support those who are experiencing domestic abuse need, but you can recommend resources and people to meet those needs. You can be aware, present, reach out, and provide respite. You can prepare beforehand by educating yourself, knowing how to help them form a safety plan, and by being prepared to make a report when needed. Our role is to be aware and alert, asking the God who is our refuge, strength, and an ever-present help in trouble to open our eyes to the vulnerable among us and to use us to care for them.

Jonathan Holmes

Jonathan Holmes is the founder and executive director of Fieldstone Counseling. He also serves as the pastor of Counseling for Parkside Church Bainbridge and Green. Jonathan graduated from The Master’s University with degrees in Biblical Counseling and History and his M.A. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author … Read More

Melissa Affolter

Melissa Affolter is a counselor with Fieldstone Counseling, and research editor with Truth For Life Ministries. She is passionate about leading women's discipleship at her home church, and enjoys visiting local coffee shops whenever she gets to travel. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24