The Brain Architects Podcast: COVID-19 Special Edition: Domestic Violence and Shelter-In-Place

Shelter-in-place orders are meant to help protect our communities from the current coronavirus pandemic. But for some people, home isn’t always a safe place. For those who are experiencing domestic violence, or believe they know someone one who is, what options are available to stay both physically healthy and safe from violence?

In this fourth episode of our COVID-19 series of The Brain Architects, host Sally Pfitzer speaks with Dr. Tien Ung, Program Director for Impact and Learning at FUTURES without Violence. Prior to her work at FUTURES, Tien spent five years as the Director of Leadership and Programs at the Center on the Developing Child.

Tien discusses important, practical steps those at home can take to keep themselves and their children safe, as well as strategies others can use if they think someone they know may be experiencing domestic violence. She also addresses the resilience of survivors, and what our communities can do both during and after COVID to listen to and engage in real responsive relationships with adults and children alike.

The next episode of this special podcast series will focus on the mental health implications of a global pandemic. Subscribe below via your podcast platform of choice to receive it as soon as it’s released.

A note on this episode: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).


Sally Pfitzer, Podcast Host
Sally Pfitzer, Podcast Host
Dr. Tien Ung
Dr. Tien Ung, Program Director, Impact and Learning, FUTURES without Violence

Additional Resources


For a list of state/territory/tribal domestic violence coalitions, please visit:

Tools and Guides


Sally: Welcome to The Brain Architects, a podcast from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. I’m your host, Sally Pfitzer. Since our last podcast series was released, things have changed drastically as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. During this unprecedented time, we’d like to share resources and provide guidance that you may find helpful. So, we are creating a series of podcast episodes that address COVID-19 and child development. A quick word about today’s episode: as you’ve probably guessed from the title, we’ll be discussing the subject of domestic violence, including mentions of sexual violence and abuse. We just want to give a heads up to those who may be sensitive to this subject matter so you can make an informed decision about whether this topic is right for you at this time. If you or someone you know may be experiencing domestic violence, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE, that’s 1-800-799-7233, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE, that’s 1-800-656-4673. This podcast is the fourth in our series, and our guest today is Dr. Tien Ung, Program Director of Impact and Learning at FUTURES Without Violence. Prior to her work at FUTURES, Tien spent 5 years as the Director of Leadership and Programs here at the Center on the Developing Child. Thank you so much for being here with us today Tien, we’re really glad to have you.

Dr. Ung: Thank you, Sally. I’m glad to be back here to talk with you all about this.

Sally: Just so our listeners know, we’re recording this podcast today on a video call, so the sound quality may be different from what you’re used to hearing when we typically record this podcast in the studio. I’m going to start us with this first question. Tien, what are you seeing and hearing from your local partners, law enforcement, and families about indicators of domestic violence since stay at home orders started?

Dr. Ung: Sheltering in place does present very unique circumstances and challenges for people who are not safe at home. We know for example, that 1 in 4 women experience violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. We know that 2 out of 3 children are exposed to trauma and violence. We know recently from the Rape, Assault & Incest National Network that for the first time in 25 years, their national hotline is receiving calls from minors, such that more than half of their calls coming in over the last couple of months have been from minors. We also know that at this time, reports of abuse and neglects against children are dropping. We know at least in Massachusetts, and I suspect in other states across the U.S. as well, that 80% of reports that come in from mandated reporters about child abuse and neglect are coming in from health professionals, educators, first responders, people who do not have eyes and ears on what’s happening behind closed doors at home right now. We also know very recently that phone calls to police stations across the nation are rising in response to domestic disputes. I think in fact, just today, we learned that a mass shooting in Canada had roots in domestic violence, which highlights, actually, what we’ve known for quite some time, that there is a strong correlation between domestic violence and mass shootings. Current stay in place orders present very specific challenges to people who are not safe at home. There’s also good news. While it is true that communities of care serve as an organic system of surveillance and monitoring bringing attention to harm that’s being done behind closed doors, we also know that those same communities serve as protective factors for children and victims of family violence and domestic violence. Faith communities, social communities, health and medical communities, as well as human service and educational communities, and legal and judicial communities—they all come together under normal circumstances to create a system and an ecology of care and protection. Those are things that I think will be important for us to unpack a little bit on the call today.

Sally: This is obviously a really challenging time, and if someone is experiencing domestic violence and they are a parent, what might they be able to do to escape that given we are in the shelter in place?

Dr. Ung: Because parents don’t have access to their normal pathways for connections, it really is very hard for them to reach out and get the help and support they need. It goes back to basic safety planning; things like making sure survivors know to put their hair in a bun rather than in a ponytail, because when your hair is in a ponytail there is more to grab onto which can cause injury. Making sure they are scanning their environments and looking for places to shelter in place in their homes where there’s not easy access to knives, for example, so don’t run into the kitchen. Doing a quick scan to see what they can use as shields or whatnot to protect themselves and reduce the likelihood of serious injury if a fight does breakout. We’re really back to basics, Sally, which is hard to believe. Some of the things we marvel about are the ways in which, and this is something that I think the Center knows well and talked about a lot when I was there, that survivors in children are incredibly resilient, and they know how to keep themselves safe, and they know what to do to manage the episodes of violence and aggression in their homes. It’s just really about giving them the support and letting them know that if things are really, really bad and they need to get out and get out quick, finding ways for them to have that. Every state, for example Sally, has a state collation for domestic violence. They are the people who know what services are in place for each state, what shelters are up and running, and what, importantly, batterer intervention programs are also up and running. They also have wonderful relationships with local law enforcement and the courts and are really good partners.

Sally: Those resources that you were saying that each state provides, how would someone get connected to that if they weren’t aware? Is that a website, or how would someone find that information?

Dr. Ung: That’s a great question. It is a website. I can make sure you all have information to that as part of this podcast so that you can put it on your website for people. It is split out by national level resources, as well as youth specific level resources, as well as resources specifically for the LGBTQ community. (Editor’s Note: That website is available here: https://ncadv.org/state-coalitions)

Sally: That’s really helpful, thanks. I’d like us to think a little bit more about what listeners or friends and family and neighbors could do to help prevent increases in domestic violence from affecting more kids.

Dr. Ung: I think that’s a good place to move into. We developed, actually on our website you can find a tip sheet of 10 simple steps that friends and family can take during this time if you’re worried about a loved one sheltering at home, or specifically about the safety; the physical, psychological, sexual, and emotional safety of someone sheltering in place. Some of them involve continuing to reach out and check in. We are sort of punctuating the notion that social distancing really isn’t the goal, physical distancing is the goal, but social connection should not go away in the face of requirements around physical distancing. We’ve been trying to practice ourselves by using the concept of physical distancing to promote the idea that finding ways to connect socially and support socially is really important. Checking in and reaching out to your family member and your friends are really important. Asking them what they need on a day to day basis, asking them if they’re okay, asking them directly if they are feeling safe. We like to encourage family members, and also community based social groups, like faith-based groups, to come together and think about how you might support families that you know are more vulnerable by preparing meals, by pulling dollars and helping families with real concrete, basic material needs. We’ve been encouraging family members and friends to reach out and offer parents relief from 24/7 parenting by offering to read a young child a book on the phone, or get on Zoom and do some crafts with someone, or even just getting on Zoom and watching a movie, or finding ways to engage in just fun. You can take your iPhone, for example, we’ve talked to people about playing hide and seek with young people with the iPhone around the house. Finding ways to offer some respite, relief, and support and connection. We’ve invited family and friends who know there might be family violence at home to find safe ways to have private conversations and establish a code word. Some of the words that some of our shelters are using have to do with “masks needed please,” so the survivor at home who’s not safe might text a service provider a code word: “masks needed please,” and that would indicate that that provider needs to initiate a police response to the house. Finding code words like that, so people can have strategies where they can get help and support in the height of the state of emergency is something we’ve talked about as well.

Sally: I love the concrete examples that you gave how you can interact with people who aren’t actually in that space. Although, I do imagine some families don’t even have access to technology, which might compound that even more.

Dr. Ung: Yes, I think that’s absolutely true. I think in those cases, families have their networks. The friends and neighbors of families who don’t have access to technology—they find ways to communicate and stay in touch, so what we’ve been inviting people to do is to find ways to maintain those connections to check in on people, and first and foremost to offer support. Anything that we can do to reduce stress and reduce burden is really important right now.

Sally: So, back to the resilience piece, obviously you spent a lot of time when you were at the Center helping us craft this curriculum around the 3 Science Principles. We were curious if you could talk a little bit more about what the science of child development tells us about what we need to do to prevent or alleviate the problems you were just describing.

Dr. Ung: You know, we know that the experience of trauma like exposure to domestic violence for children has three broad-level impact levels on children. They have biological impacts, which I think at the Center we talk about as the ways in which adversity gets under the skin and impacts children’s health system—raising risk across the life course for negative impacts in learning health, and behavior. We also know that it has psychological impacts, relative to influencing how young people think, feel, act, and interact with others. Lastly, we know that the exposure to prolonged trauma like witnessing domestic violence or experiencing family violence in the home can lead to negative social impacts, interfering with how children and young people relate and make decisions in the context of interpersonal health and engagement. In that context, we’ve been trying to draw a lot on the science that the Center organizes and produces to help people design strategies and programs and policies that buffer impacts in those three areas. When this is all said and done, which seems to be a very relative framing, there will be – we all anticipate—a long period of recovery. A lot of the conversation right now, Sally, is focused around the stress and the trauma of sheltering in place when home is not a safe place, but we’ve been paying a lot of close attention to near-term and long-term stressors that families that were already vulnerable before COVID are going to be facing sort of burdens and levels of stress. There have been 58,000+ deaths in the U.S. right now, and that number is going to continue to sore while we live through all of this. It’s not just family members of young people and children and youth who are dying, but teachers and coaches and people who represent really important relationships in the lives of young people. That’s a wave that we’re really trying to get ahead of and prepare for now. We think the best systems of care pre-COVID, during-COVID, and post-COVID ought to be organized around creating experiences and conditions that help young people and their families thrive, survive, reduce burden and stress in their lives, and create and sustain meaningful, interactive, positive relationships. A lot of that is promoting people’s capacities and skill in terms of being able to have very authentic and genuine conversations with their service providers, with their neighbors, with their faith communities, with their family, about what it means to be in a safe and healthy relationship, and to really promote that as doorways to service deliveries and service provision, rather than business as usual, which is the only access to serve this provision a vulnerable children in a family can have is through a surveillance and a monitoring system, which only produces stigma and also decreases, I think, the likeliness that if you need help and want help you can actually get it. Nobody wants to get help when help comes with the conditions of needing to be labeled a victim or a batterer, frankly.

Sally: It’s so challenging to take such a huge topic and cut it down into 15 minutes, so thank you for allowing us.

Dr. Ung: Thank you for inviting me.

Musical interlude

Sally: I’m your host, Sally Pfitzer. The Brain Architects is a product of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. You can find us at developingchild.harvard.edu. We’re also on Twitter @HarvardCenter, Facebook @CenterDevelopingChild, and Instagram @DevelopingChildHarvard. Brandi Thomas is our producer, and Charley Gibney is our producer and audio editor. Our music is Brain Power, by Mela from FreeMusicArchive.org. This podcast was recorded at my dining room table.

  Subscribe to our newletter