The NYPD found ten-year-old Ayden Wolfe unresponsive and covered in cuts and bruises on the floor of his Harlem public-housing apartment, his family desperately attempting CPR. He was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late; he died two hours later. Wolfe’s stepfather, 34-year-old Ryan Cato, had beaten the boy for two days. He now faces murder and child-endangerment charges.
Ayden’s brutal killing is a tragedy in its own right, but it is not unique. Crime surged in American cities last year: shootings and homicides, and domestic violence, too. The tumultuous events of 2020—the pandemic, lockdowns, mass protests and riots, and the push to defund police departments—means that no one is sure exactly what to blame for the overall spike. But in the case of domestic offenses, the cause is clear: Covid-19 restrictions, imposed as a public-health measure, put potential victims into closer proximity with their victimizers, resulting—predictably—in more violence.
Researchers have been looking into the lockdown-domestic-violence link since states began imposing Covid restrictions. A recent survey of studies, published by the Council on Criminal Justice, estimated that the imposition of a lockdown in a given jurisdiction led to an 8 percent increase in domestic violence. That figure matches other estimates, including another CCJ report that found a 10 percent increase in domestic violence calls for service last March and April. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported a 9 percent increase in calls between March and May compared with 2019.
The NYPD reported nearly 60 domestic violence incidents that ended in murder last year, alongside nearly 600 rape complaints and over 8,000 assaults. Last March, it received nearly 17,000 calls about domestic violence, up from roughly 15,500 the year before. Though call rates returned to 2019 levels by the end of the year, cases like Wolfe’s indicate that restrictions may still be having a harmful effect in individual cases.
Being cut off from friends, coworkers, and teachers reduces domestic-violence victims’ ability to seek and obtain help. The closure of public spaces also drives domestic-violence priming behavior indoors. Alcohol consumption has risen substantially since the onset of the pandemic, and one recent paper provides evidence that bar closures unsurprisingly encouraged drinking at home. In short, shutdowns—and even partial reopenings—constrain the relationships and environments that, in the pre-Covid days, helped control domestic violence.
Policymakers have tools for reducing domestic violence, including education programs, early childhood intervention, and victim support. The recently passed stimulus bill includes $800 million for child-abuse, domestic-violence, and gender-based violence prevention. But the Covid-adjacent spike is a short-term phenomenon demanding faster fixes than such measures can provide. That means increased law enforcement attention to domestic violence and, where appropriate, easing of Covid restrictions, especially where they affect those most at risk for domestic violence.
Police have a significant role to play in this process. Research shows that arresting offenders, especially as targeted by special domestic-violence units, can reduce the risk of re-abuse, increase the likelihood of a successful prosecution, and improve victims’ satisfaction and safety. (This evidence also points to just one of the many ways that efforts to slash police budgets are particularly harmful.)
Cities should also move to reduce harm by reopening public spaces where health concerns permit, particularly those that cater to children. New York City is in the process of reopening its schools, giving kids a place away from potentially violent situations and a lifeline to teachers and advisors. But just one in four New York kids, and just one in five high schoolers, will actually be allowed to attend; the rest are excluded because they opted out of the system last fall.
That exclusion is a problem for a host of reasons—rising education gaps and teen suicide, for example—but also because it may contribute to more violence and more deaths like Wolfe’s. Policymakers are right to be concerned about public health. But against those concerns, they must weigh the risks of violence that children often face in their own homes.
Photo: Serghei Turcanu/iStock