Research Watch

Is there an increase in family violence after catastrophic events?

Year of Publication
Date Reviewed
Reviewed By
Barbara Fallon & Rachael Lefebvre

Curtis, T., Miller, B., Berry, H. (2000). Changes in report and incidence of child abuse following natural disasters. Child Abuse & Neglect. 24 (9), 1151–1162.


Background: The authors observe that theories from sociology, psychology, and family science lead to a hypothesis that an increase in family violence is expected after catastrophic events. There are several reasons why this is likely to occur including a disruption of social supports and the inability to identify and address inappropriate behavior. Bugental and colleagues (1989) predicted that natural disasters are more likely to lead to ineffective coping strategies among individuals who already feel powerless and children may become the subject of more aggressive behaviors.

Research Question: This study examined whether there was an increase in reporting and/or substantiation of child abuse following a natural disaster.

Analysis: The Child Protective Service records of three jurisdictions which experienced natural disasters during the past decade were examined. Reports and substantiations were gathered beginning 1 year prior to three disaster dates and ending 1 year following the events: Loma Prieta earthquake in the Bay Area of California, Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina, and Hurricane Andrew in Louisiana. Inclusion criteria included: major natural disaster broad enough to affect the entire county; no recent change in reporting standards; at least 1 year of post event child abuse reports data available; and that enough damage had occurred to receive a presidential disaster declaration for that county. The three disasters analyzed took place between 1987 and 1992.

An interrupted time series quasi-experimental design was used to test the hypothesis that child abuse increases following a natural disaster. Data from California, South Carolina, and Louisiana were analyzed separately because of differences in reporting procedures. The number of reports and substantiations of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse were aggregated in each state from all counties that were declared disaster zones. This procedure allowed replication of the study across three different states which experienced disasters at different times. The method chosen to analyze these data used monthly proportions and so the disaster month was excluded to compare only 11 months in the pre- and post disaster years. The null hypothesis was that there was no difference pre-post disaster in the proportion of reports for the period under consideration. If 25% of all pre disaster reports occurred in a given 3 month period, it was expected that 25% of all post disaster reports also would take place during the same 3 months of the following year. A percentage difference between the expected and observed frequencies for each post disaster time period was computed.

Results: The number of child abuse reports and substantiations, adjusted for population changes, were higher 3, 6, and 11 months after Hurricane Hugo, compared to the same months in the preceding year. At each of these post disaster time periods, the difference between child abuse rates before and after both Hurricane Hugo and Loma Prieta earthquake was larger for reports than for substantiations. Physical abuse reports accounted for over half of the total number of reports. A different pattern of results was apparent before and after Hurricane Andrew. The numbers, rates, and proportions of child abuse reports and substantiations in affected counties were lower after Hurricane Andrew than before.

Discussion: The research is not conclusive regarding an increase in child abuse after a disaster. Child abuse may increase for several reasons: the emotional effect of disasters on children might pose additional problems and increase stress for parents that could trigger abusive reactions; some children are likely to exhibit post disaster reactions that are misunderstood or problematic for parents; children’s excessive anxieties and less mature behaviors contribute to the stresses experienced by parents already attempting to deal with other disaster related problems. Following a disaster, many different systems experience disruption further isolating families. Case workers experience the same stress as the population and be unable to work with the same proficiency they did before the disaster. The infrastructure is likely to be interrupted by natural disasters. The physical environment on which caseworkers depend might be compromised. Reporters may be unable to contact child protection or maltreatment might seem less serious to the public. All of these factors could contribute to an inaccurate picture of the extent to which child maltreatment actually changes following natural disasters.

Methodological Notes

Limitations: It is believed that most child abuse goes unreported. If this is true during normal conditions, unreported abuse may be higher following disasters because of greater obstacles to both reporting and investigation. A methodology based on population sampling and interviews might provide more accurate results, and an anonymous self report instrument could provide useful information. Police or court documents also might provide another way of addressing the question of family violence following disasters. Hospital emergency room records also might be used to track trends in child abuse or domestic violence injuries before and after catastrophes.

Conclusion: Further research into how CPS agencies and their services are affected by disasters would be valuable. It is unknown what changes CPS workers experience after disasters; if procedures or infrastructure change, case investigation and data collection could be affected. Qualitative research would be helpful to determine how protocols for investigation are followed in the wake of disasters, or if cases slip through the system because of the stress on both the public and the CPS workers. In summary, for two of three catastrophic events studied, evidence was found that child abuse increases following natural disasters. While this research has not provided a definite answer regarding child abuse following catastrophes, it offers conceptual and methodological starting points for expanding future research in this area.