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Hurricane recovery stress causing domestic violence increase

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A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Domestic violence counselors like Sandra Pearson have seen an increase in calls due to the stress of Hurricane Katrina.
Jan. 12, 2006

By John Gordon*

BATON ROUGE, La. (UMNS) — Much of the damage from Hurricane Katrina is obvious — homes, businesses and churches devastated by fierce winds and rising waters.

But the monster storm has also taken an often-unseen, emotional toll.

Counselors at the Capital Area Family Violence Intervention Center in Baton Rouge are dealing with an increasing number of calls to their crisis line. They believe the stress of dealing with the damage caused by Katrina will lead to more calls for help from domestic violence victims.

“Stress of this magnitude, and lasting this long a period of time, is incredibly hard to deal with,” said United Methodist Vikki Peay, the center’s program director. “And so people don’t have healthy ways to cope with it.”

Making the problem worse is that the storm wiped out New Orleans’ infrastructure for offering help to family violence victims. Two of the city’s largest shelters for battered women remain closed.

The Capital Area intervention center’s shelter in Baton Rouge, about an hour away from New Orleans, remains open. Peay, who worked as a crisis counselor after Hurricane Lilli battered the state in 2002, said she expects to see an even bigger increase in calls in the months to come.

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A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Vikki Peay is the program director at the Capital Area Family Violence Intervention Center, a shelter in Baton Rouge, La.
“Following the storms, there was much more media coverage about pet shelters than about any domestic violence shelter,” Peay said.

“Although it has been limited research, we do know that after Hurricane Andrew went through Miami, they had a 50 percent increase in the number of calls and the services that were needed in that area of domestic violence,” she said.

One in three women in the U.S. will become victims of domestic violence, she said.

Her concerns are backed by the words of a victim her center has helped. Dawn, a domestic-violence victim who relocated to Baton Rouge after evacuating from a New Orleans shelter, called the ordeal “scary, frightening, overwhelming.” Her real name is not being used because counselors said she would be in danger if her abuser knew her whereabouts.

“Unfortunately, tragedy causes a tremendous amount of stress,” she said. “And the first area that stress surfaces is in the home.”

Dawn said she left an abusive home to protect her children.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Dayla Waller of the Capital Area Family Violence Intervention Center plays with Niesha Moore, 2, at the agency's shelter in Baton Rouge, La.
“We pray a whole, whole lot to make ends meet, we do. We go without a lot,” she said. “But we’re safe, we’re safe. And that’s what counts.”

Mary Claire Landry, president of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the state’s shelters are facing financial problems because of uncertainty over continued state funding. But the need for their services is growing, Landry said.

“Every single woman that we have talked with we’ve asked, ‘Has the situation of domestic violence gotten worse after Katrina?’” Landry said. “And 100 percent of them say, ‘Absolutely, it’s gotten more stressful and more violent.’”

Landry is working with the New Orleans Police Department to re-establish a domestic-violence unit and crisis-intervention team. Counselors are also working at assistance centers operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offer help to victims.

“Part of what’s happened now is that the infrastructure has been so damaged that people don’t know where to call for help,” Landry said. “Phone numbers aren’t working, phone numbers have changed, phones don’t always work properly.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Damage from Hurricane Katrina destroyed two of New Orleans' largest shelters for battered women.
The Baton Rouge center operates a 24-hour crisis line. Besides shelter and counseling, the center has staff attorneys to help victims with restraining orders and other legal issues.

Peay said adults are not the only ones affected by family violence.

“We find that about 50 percent of the time, children in the homes where domestic violence occurs are sexually assaulted or abused,” she said. “And so we work with moms to recognize signs and to talk with them about services and support for the children.”

And despite the difficulties of starting over in an area ravaged by Katrina, Dawn has no doubts she made the right decision.

“I know I’m on the right road and things will work out,” she said. “I’ll continue to proceed in faith.”

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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