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Disasters and Domestic Abuse: A Life-threatening Link


October is Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month

October is Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. The campaign is dedicated to educate and inform families about physical and mental abuse, and to offer programs and resources to assist families in need.

Reports of domestic abuse incidents increasing after a disaster suggest that there is a link between disasters and domestic violence - a growing concern in recent years.

Disasters and domestic abuse: Uncovering the link

In August of 2016, Baton Rouge, LA experienced a catastrophic, 1-in-1,000 year flooding event that dropped more than 7.1 million gallons of water on the region. The devastating rains resulted in at least a dozen deaths, more than 60,000 homes damaged or destroyed, and the displacement of thousands of people.

Many of those displaced were still in shelters until their recent closure last week. For some, the shelters left them vulnerable and exposed to another threat - domestic violence. Some had been in safe locations and hiding from their abusers when the flooding began.

Disasters can exacerbate situations for vulnerable populations, including those relocated to safe areas or locations away from abusers. A recent article highlighted the unique threats encountered by domestic abuse victims in the face of disasters. Threats include exposure, being coerced back by the abuser, and finding replacements for meager possessions likely donated to them when they sought refuge from their abuser.

Reports also indicate that of women murdered, 75 percent of them were in the process of escaping or had just escaped from an abuser. And for some, this becomes a real threat in the face of a disaster.

When disasters strike, and homes become inhabitable, domestic abuse victims may find themselves facing an evacuation. Following evacuation, a prolonged stay in a public shelter can leave them exposed and vulnerable to being found by their abusers.

Often, abusers have loyal networks that will report the location or information about a victim, placing that individual at great risk of being found. Once the abuser finds the victim, they work to coerce them back, especially with the lure of a safe location, including food, water, and other basic needs.

Complicating the issue of their safety is that regular shelter staff and volunteers are often not equipped or trained to ensure the safety and privacy of these victims.

Programs face increased needs and decreased funding

Studies show that the aftermath of disasters usually result in an increased number of domestic violence incidents. This happened in New Jersey and New York after Superstorm Sandy, and in southern Louisiana after the BP oil spill in 2010. After the oil spill, one parish in Louisiana saw an 86 percent increase in sheltering, while in another parish, crisis calls increased by 43 percent.

Reports also indicate that survivors experience increased depression and stress and engage in substance abuse at an increased rate. Outcomes from the disaster cause family members to be more accessible due to work interruptions for many, which can contribute to an increased number and greater severity of domestic abuse incidents.

Funding for domestic abuse programs

Current funding for domestic abuse programs falls short in many locations, including Louisiana, which just experienced a 3.5 percent budget cut due to the fiscal condition of the state. These cuts will impact resources and services following the recent catastrophic flooding. Consequently, needs are increasing even as funding is decreasing.

To make matters worse, emergency funds and/or donations often do not reach these domestic abuse programs, or the mental health programs that are often in high demand, overwhelmed, and/or understaffed following a disaster.

Finding hope

Following the outcome of Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey and New York, the National Domestic Violence Hotline and organizations from the two states established a training curriculum to help prepare domestic abuse programs for disasters. The training program offers safety planning, budgeting for disasters, recognizing the warning signs of domestic abuse, along with training on referral procedures and how to access services.

Local Emergency Management Agencies to Benefit from Training Curriculum

The partnering organizations also developed a separate training curriculum for "disaster response and preparedness personnel on domestic violence in disaster response situations and linkages to appropriate services." This tool is likely to be useful for many local emergency management agencies for addressing vulnerable populations and having resources in place ahead of any disaster that may impact the area.

By having a plan and being prepared, along with knowing what resources exist and how to link with them, a community can protect these victims of domestic abuse, some of its most vulnerable citizens.

Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.