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COVID-19’s Impact on Gender-Based Violence Services

Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on community-based service provision for victims of gender-based violence


To understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on service provision for victims of gender-based violence in eight U.S. counties that vary in geography, urbanicity, and sociopolitical settings. 


We used a mixed method design, including conducting a site-specific policy analysis to better understand the sociopolitical context in which services were taking place, administering a web survey to relevant victim service providers, and conducting one in-depth agency case study in each of the eight participating counties. 


We found that victim service providers adapted their services to federal, state, and local mandates and as well as critical infrastructure closures to continue to support survivors throughout the pandemic. Agency capacity was stretched to its limit, with organizations serving more clients in greater distress while receiving limited additional support. Findings provide tangible strategies to support victim service providers through the continued ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic and future public health crises, natural disasters, and other service disruptions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on victims of crime, and community-based victim service provider (VSP) agencies needed to maintain accessibility to their critical services. With support from the National Institute of Justice, we sought to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on service provision for victims of gender-based violence, including survivors of sexual assault/abuse, intimate partner violence, or sex trafficking. Our study focused on eight U.S. counties within four states that varied in geography, urbanicity, and sociopolitical settings. 

Our specific objectives were to document and understand: 

  • The challenges posed by the pandemic—including related societal changes, such as social distancing, court closures, and legislative mandates
  • How agencies pivoted to address these challenges
  • Which innovations were successful in ways that warranted lasting changes in practice, which changes in practice were discontinued as COVID-19 restrictions eased, and the rationale behind these decisions.

The Impact of Local Policy on Supporting Victims of Gender-Based Violence

Across the four states included in this study, closures and mandates such as masks, vaccines, and social distancing began at the same time but were implemented with differing levels of stringency. Many agencies noted that these public health mandates never impacted service delivery or presented challenges when they were in place. In fact, some agencies noted that these mandates were or continue to be helpful to their service delivery. 

Conversely, most agencies reported that closures to schools, courts, hospitals, and public transportation presented challenges when they were in place and limited the availability of certain services. For example, we found that agencies that provide shelter to families with children found themselves, at the onset of the pandemic, suddenly in the position of needing to support remote schooling for resident children, which had implications for technology provision and network connectivity capabilities. During the time of widespread business closures, we found that victim service providers experienced an influx of requests for support, even from community members who did not fit the agency’s typical client profile, and that their ability to refer clients to other agencies for services was very limited. 

How COVID-19 Resulted in Lasting Changes to Service Delivery Models and Practices

Many of the sustained changes to participating victim service providers in this study have to do with how they operate and the modalities in which they offer services. Most agencies did not have an option for virtual client engagement prior to the pandemic. However, almost all the agencies in this project were forced to modernize their technology, adopting virtual client engagement platforms and processes. Even when stay-at-home orders and social distancing restrictions were lifted, many agencies reported that they kept virtual service delivery available to clients. 

Interview respondents frequently described specific client populations that benefited from virtual service delivery, including clients with children, clients with disabilities, those without reliable access to transportation, and victims of human trafficking and intimate partner violence who were still living with their abusers. 

However, there were limits to the adoption of virtual service provision. Although some services were just not able to be offered remotely (e.g., shelter, medical accompaniment, food provision), it took trial and error for staff to determine that others were not the right fit for this modality. For example, they found it particularly difficult to offer support groups and group counseling sessions virtually. 

Patterns in the Impact of COVID-19 on Victim Service Provision

Lastly, our study found that there were patterns in how victim service providers were affected by the pandemic. We found differences based on region (e.g., providers in Massachusetts reported an increase in demand for case management services), urbanicity (e.g., providers in rural areas reported decreased demand for shelter services), and types of service (e.g., providers with shelter services reported a decrease in volunteers). 

Preparing for Future Service Disruptions

Our findings on how community-based victim service providers responded to the COVID-19 pandemic can be used to support them during future disruptions. With this in mind, we developed several policy recommendations for agency leaders, policymakers, funders, and researchers that can be individualized based on urbanicity and types of services offered. Some examples include:

  • Integrating an expert on relevant technologies into advisory boards or agency staff to develop and implement technology-related contingency plans
  • Establishing VSPs who respond to gender-based violence as essential workers
  • Providing flexibility in funding restrictions and definitions of service eligibility

Read the full report here. Read more about the challenges and successes VSPs experienced and our recommendations for VSPs to mitigate future service disruption.

Learn more about RTI’s research on community safety, crime prevention, and victimization response.