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Domestic violence: An epidemic within a pandemic

Submitted by Suzanne Hamilton

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Domestic violence is the physical battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a pattern of power and control by one intimate partner against another. Domestic violence has reached epidemic proportions, not only in Louisiana, but in the nation and the world.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (www.ncadv.org), Louisiana is the fifth-most dangerous state in the number of domestic violence cases. About one-third of Louisiana woman (33.4 percent) and men (28.4 percent) experience physical or sexual violence or stalking in their lifetimes. In 2010, Louisiana ranked fitth in the nation for female homicide. Of the women murdered, 81 percent were murdered by a partner or ex-partner.

There has been at least one domestic homicide in every parish in Louisiana. As of Dec. 31, 2016, Louisiana had submitted 19,829 domestic violence misdemeanor and 1,209 protective order records to the national registry. Seventy-two percent of all murder-suicides involved an intimate partner, and 94 percent of the victims of these crimes were female. As you can see, domestic violence in Louisiana is at a crisis that has reached an epidemic proportion.

It has been observed that the number domestic violence and sexual assault incidents increases following natural disasters. Consider the following collected by the New Jersey Department of Child and Family Services:

A 45 percent increase in DV reports following Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption in 1980.

A 50 percent increase in requests for restraining orders and a 300 percent increase in sexual assault reports following the 1989 California earthquake.

A 50 percent increase in spousal abuse calls following Florida’s Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

A 45 percent increase in DV calls in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

A tripling of the rate of gender-based violence in Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina.

These observations seem to hold true for the current coronavirus pandemic. Staff at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found violence doubled during the first nine weeks that the state of emergency was declared and the schools closed in response to COVID-19 when compared to the same time period in 2019 and 2018. And not only has the number of incidents increased during the COVID-19 isolation, but the severity did as well.

Radiology scans completed at the hospital in Boston saw an increase in serious injuries resulting from strangulation, stabbing, burns and guns or knives. Stay-at-home orders may be designed to protect the public, but they can endanger victims of domestic violence.

Domestic violence is about power and control of the victim. Many of the reasons that increase domestic violence incidents following natural disasters are especially present during the current pandemic. These include housing being threatened by not being able to pay rent or mortgage, shared custody arrangements with children not being able to go back and forth between mother and father’s households, jobs are being lost, financial security is threatened, food insecurity, all family members are forced to shelter together for long periods of time, opportunities for 3rd parties to observe and report domestic violence, not being able to leave the household when things become tense, child care is lost, and social outlets are lost.

The Power and Control Wheel was developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, Duluth, Minn. The New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence amended it to show how abuse is influenced during a natural disaster.

  • Using the Children: The abuser telling the children that the victim abandoned them during the evacuation and will not be coming back, when in reality they fled to a domestic violence shelter for safety.
  • Anger/Emotional Abuse: Yelling at and telling victims they are weak or stupid for not picking up enough sand bags or supplies for storm preparations
  • Economic Abuse: Taking FEMA money and using it improperly or not giving the victim access to it.
  • Intimidation: Giving victims a “knowing” look to keep them from telling the Red Cross volunteers how injuries really occurred.
  • Minimize/Deny/Blame: Shifting responsibility for abusive behavior to victims, saying they caused it. Telling victims the stress of the disaster was too much to handle and that’s why they “snapped”.
  • Coercion and Threats: Threatening to leave victims and children in the house when evacuation orders are in place.
  • Companion Animals: Leaving the family dog in the living room while locking the victim in the bathroom with no way to escape. Then taking off, leaving them trapped separately in the house, unsafe and vulnerable during the storm’s wrath.
  • Isolation/Exclusion: Leaving victims without a car during times of disaster when the need to evacuate is imminent.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the free Louisiana hotline at (888) 411-1333. This service is available 24 hours per day and is free and confidential. The Ascension Parish hotline is the Iris Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 541-9706. If you or your company wants to take a stand against domestic violence in Ascension Parish, please join us at the Caring Communities Resource Team. We are a collaboration of agencies such as the Ascension Parish School Board, Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, Child and Advocacy Services, Families in Need of Services, Iris Domestic Violence Center, Our Lady of the Lake-Ascension Hospital, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, and more. To become involved, contact Suzanne Hamilton, LPC, at (225) 253-9635, or by email at dvchange@outlook.com.