Without Home and Without Shelter — How Can First Responders Help Victims of Domestic Violence During Disasters?

Marylouise Kelley, Director, Division of Family Violence Prevention & Services, Family & Youth Services Bureau

Natural disasters can affect every aspect of life in the areas they touch. These disasters can have an even bigger impact on victims of domestic violence and those at risk.

For victims of domestic violence in shelters, the situation can become more complicated. They have already been displaced from their homes, and may not have access to the support and supplies they need. There’s an added risk to the lack of privacy in mass shelter facilities. Evacuating impacted areas can leave victims in unknown territory and vulnerable to further abuse.

This is why it’s important that first responders like paramedics, firefighters, and law enforcement are aware of these unique concerns for domestic violence victims so they can respond accordingly.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline, funded by ACF’s Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) Program has used experience from response efforts during Hurricane Sandy and subsequent disasters to create a Disaster Response Curriculum for First Responders (download the .zip file). This research based, practitioner driven guide is a tool for interested organizations to learn about and use trauma-informed best practices for disaster management in the context of domestic violence. The curriculum discusses barriers victims may experience during disasters, protocols agencies can follow to provide trauma-informed emergency services, and how those providing emergency responses can get emotional help and support for themselves.

FVPSA has also collaborated with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) to create a fact sheet, FIRST RESPONDERS: Support for Pregnant Survivors of Abuse or Rape during Disasters (also available in Spanish). It covers the intersection of abuse and pregnancy, specific challenges and barriers to reporting violent incidents during disasters, what first responders need to know about pregnant survivors of abuse, and ways they can be of help.

Studies and anecdotal evidence indicate that there are increases in domestic violence and sexual assault following disasters – one study from the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) reported a 46% increase in police reports of domestic violence after a disaster, and a survey conducted by the State of New Jersey Department of Children and Families found 9 of 13 domestic violence programs reporting increases in violence after major storms or disasters. First responders have a crucial role to play in protecting these victims and potential victims during a disaster.

If you or someone you know is concerned about abuse in their relationship, The National Domestic Violence Hotline is here to help. Knowledgeable, caring, and well-trained advocates are available 24/7/365 to provide support at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224 for TTY. Live online chat services are available every day from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. CT at http://www.thehotline.org.

For those who have been affected by rape or sexual violence, RAINN: The Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network has compassionate and well-trained advocates available 24/7 to offer support at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or live online chat at https://www.rainn.org/.

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