AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Australia's government has just finished up an investigation into this year's devastating bushfires. It included testimony about how disasters can lead to spikes in family violence. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports that the issue is especially pressing because of the pandemic.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Jodie Thorneycroft is 53 years old. She's from the outskirts of Melbourne, although she's spent pretty much her whole adult life living and raising kids and running a health clinic in the Australian mountain town of Kinglake.
JODIE THORNEYCROFT: I love it when I'm busy. I hate not being busy. When I'm not busy, I feel like I'm wasting my time.
HERSHER: I met Thorneycroft in February. This was before the coronavirus outbreak became a pandemic. And it's hard to remember, but fire was the No. 1 thing on both of our minds. For weeks, the news around the world had showed Australia burning, people fleeing their homes. And it reminded Jodie of when that was her 11 years ago. So that's where her story began - back on the morning of February 7, 2009.
THORNEYCROFT: You could just feel it. It was so harsh, and the wind was so strong.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Probably the highest temperature ever reliably recorded in Victoria - that's 118.
HERSHER: Fast-forward. It's afternoon. A fire has broken out on the next mountain over. Jodie's husband is lying on the couch in the air conditioning. If he's concerned, he's hiding it.
THORNEYCROFT: I said, I'm out. I don't feel right. And he just looked at me and said, oh, don't worry about it. If there's a fire, I'll save the house.
HERSHER: He stays. She leaves. A few hours later, her husband is calling her, frantic, saying he's sure he's going to die.
THORNEYCROFT: He was screaming and yelling, saying, I'm on the roof. I'm stuck. I can't get down. I can't see. Everything's on fire. Yeah, so it was a pretty horrendous night.
HERSHER: Jodie's house and her husband both survived the fire, but most of their town was gone.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The death toll remains at 181, although the search for bodies continues.
THORNEYCROFT: We kept being told how lucky we were that we still had homes. And I'm going, yeah, I feel - I'm really so grateful for that. But, you know, your home is your family. Your community is your extended family. And that's your safe place. Like, you have routines, schools, way of life, neighbors, friends down the road. Then all of a sudden, it's gone. It's really hard - I'm going to use the word to ground yourself again.
HERSHER: Like, hard to regain a sense of purpose and power over your day-to-day life. And within a few weeks, it was clear that some people in town were not dealing with that stress.
THORNEYCROFT: There was a lot of concern about men not expressing how they were feeling and how they were dealing with the recovery because a lot of people took on drugs, alcohol, you know, risk-taking behavior.
HERSHER: Risky not just for them but for their families. Women were coming to Jodie, saying, something is wrong at home. I don't feel safe.
How widespread do you think violence in the home was after the fires?
THORNEYCROFT: I've actually never even thought about that question, but wow. It became - I'm going to say probably normal.
HERSHER: Normal - not OK, just common. What Jodie and her neighbors didn't know was that this had happened in other places after disasters. Research in the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina found a spike in domestic violence after the storm. In Australia, it had never been studied after fires, and there was very little data available about the extent of the problem because state governments were not systematically collecting data. Debra Parkinson was working at a women's health clinic at the time.
DEBRA PARKINSON: So we were wondering what we could do to help. We thought, well, what we do is document women's voices, so how about we work up a research project to hear about women's experiences?
HERSHER: Over the next three years, she and her colleagues interviewed nearly 50 women in places that had burned, looking for patterns. The researchers didn't explicitly ask about men physically assaulting their partners or children, but most women brought it up anyway. Parkinson published anonymous excerpts from some of the interviews, and they were shocking. We've asked actors to read some of them.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: It's like he died. It's like I'm a widow, but the corpse is still here to beat me up.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: What's happened with the fires is there seems to be no control in his emotions. He's just completely reactionary, whereas once he was able to moderate, or at least there was some kind of understanding to his rage and anger. Like, there was some context. Now there's no context to his rage. It's just completely random.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: My husband says that I nearly died, so I should be able to do whatever I want, which I can understand. But it took me months and months to work out that I nearly died, too.
HERSHER: A subsequent study by a different team of researchers backed up the women's stories with some numbers. The percentage of women who lived in severely burned areas in 2009 and reported family violence was seven times that of women in areas that were not burned severely. But why? Previous research suggested that feeling like a victim as opposed to feeling in control could lead some men to feel depressed and inadequate. Being laid off from a job can trigger the same feelings in some people. And some of those men lash out violently. Parkinson says her research after the fires was quite unpopular. For one thing, a lot of men had battled the flames, saved their houses or helped save the homes of neighbors, and the media had labeled them heroes. And she says heroes don't hurt people.
PARKINSON: I think heroism is such a complex and fraught notion the way it's used in this country. It's applied to men almost universally.
HERSHER: And there was another reason, she says, her research made people uncomfortable.
PARKINSON: We had a lot of pushback from even trauma counselors and from community members, saying, who are you to come into this traumatized community and talk about family violence? You know, you are adding to the pressures. And my argument is when you ignore it, you know, it's not good for anyone. It's not good for the women and the children, and it's certainly not good for the men either.
HERSHER: Community leader Jodie Thorneycroft agrees. She organizes peer support in her town, and she says a lot of people divorced their spouses since the disaster, including her. She didn't want to discuss the specific reasons for her divorce, but she says it was ultimately caused by the aftermath of the fire. Meanwhile, Debra Parkinson has used her research to design a cheat sheet titled Disaster Is No Excuse For Family Violence. It's for social workers, firefighters, police and chaplains.
PARKINSON: So this is all you have to do. One, ask, are you safe at home? Two, name it. What you've described to me is violence, and it's a crime. We need to keep this in mind.
HERSHER: The contact information for domestic violence hotlines are printed right there.
PARKINSON: You know, it's actually not all that hard to make it clear that this is likely to happen. It's been documented that it's going to happen for some families, and here's what you do. There's a constructive way to handle it.
HERSHER: As of last year, 30,000 cheat sheets had been distributed across the Australian state of Victoria just in time for this season's fires. And in May the topic came up during national hearings about what had happened during the fires and the government's response.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Royal Commission has now resumed. Please be seated.
HERSHER: Public health expert Lisa Gibbs took the stand and warned that family violence had to be part of the country's current conversation after the fires and during the pandemic.
LISA GIBBS: People are dealing with change of income, change of accommodation, relationship breakdown because of the strain of what's going on, potentially exposure to violence. All of these factors undermine people's capacity to deal with what's happening.
HERSHER: The same is likely true in the U.S. Lockdowns and financial strain from the pandemic have already led to a documented spike in violence against women and children in some places in the U.S., and this year's most severe hurricanes and fires are still to come.
Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
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