Super Cold Weather Increases Domestic Violence, Experts Say
Young and poor, Bonnie Bucqueroux said she worried every time the weather turned cold and she was housebound with her abusive husband and had nowhere to turn.
"I married at 18 because my parents didn't like my boyfriend," she told ABCNews.com. "But I discovered in the first six months he had a very violent streak. In elementary school, he almost killed another student -- he almost choked him to death."
One night in the middle of a Michigan snowstorm, he took his "cabin fever" out on Bucqueroux, she said.
"He was a heavy drinker and often I found myself in a bad situation, trapped in our trailer with not enough money for a phone," she said.
"One snowy evening, I walked into the kitchen just to try and sweep up the floor. I didn't know he had crept up behind me. For some reason, he grabbed me and threw me across the room, bouncing me off the cabinets. He kicked me and threw me out in the snow and locked the door."
Bucqueroux said she was so "profoundly humiliated," she couldn't even seek help from a neighbor. So, she banged on the trailer door, begging her husband to let her back in.
"It was 1962 -- there were no shelters and no place to go," she said.
Today, Bucqueroux, 69 and long widowed, teaches at Michigan State University's School of Journalism and was the former coordinator of its Victims and the Media program.
When the weather turns bitter cold, as it has been across the country this week, she worries about an uptick in domestic violence.
Wind chill advisories and warnings were in effect on Tuesday for 32 states from Montana to southern Florida.
During a similar deep freeze in December, Bucqueroux wrote about danger that women with few resources face when the weather turns nasty.
"Those were the nights I would carefully go through the house and make sure there were no knives or scissors in view," she wrote in Lansing Online about her own experience. "I figured I stood a fighting chance against fists, kicks and attempts to choke me, but if he ever picked up a weapon ..."
"Being cooped up together with little or no relief can fray tempers among the best of us. Cranky kids tired of being cold can up the ante. And people whose coping mechanisms include leaving the house to cool off are less likely to do so when the temperature is in single digits outside.
While there are no national statistics on a direct correlation between domestic violence and the weather, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) has reported a high number of calls reporting sexual assault in December and so far in January, when storms and cold kicked in.
Its National Sexual Assault Online Hotline usage was up 20 percent since the fall. The combined phone and online hotline usage was up 7 percent with an average of 404 calls and online sessions per day. Call rates have continued to climb this week.
"During the recent severe cold weather we would expect that violence is also more likely to occur as families are confined in the home for extended periods and that, as with holidays, the opportunity for escape is quite low," said Gwyn Kaitis, director of the City of Chicago Domestic Violence Help Line/Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women's Network.
"Women, especially those with few resources to begin with, have even fewer resources when bad weather occurs. It is difficult to impossible to take the children and leave home, there is often a lack of transportation, and quite frequently no place to go. Calling outside the home for help or trying to leave and not being able to successfully do so can lead to even more serious danger, injuries, and possibly even death."
As far back as 1998, local law enforcement has used the term "cabin fever" as an explanation for why they get so many domestic calls from families who are "cooped up" tend to "get on each other's nerves."
And cold isn't the only trigger.
In Britain, some law enforcement officials say rain is to blame for an increase in domestic violence cases, according to The Telegraph.
Police in the coastal Devon and Cornwell region, said antisocial behavior is common during bad weather. The wettest summer since 1912 plagued that coastal area in 2012, and police reported 75 domestic abuse cases in one 24-hour period when the area had been hit with heavy rain.
"People get cabin fever locked in a house together," Sgt. Andy Turner told local government officials, according to The Telegraph.
But David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire said that weather may be a precipitant for violence, but only a "minor" one.
"Things like unemployment and economic downturns and things that generate social stress on a larger level are more important," he said. "A lot of it probably has to do with environment. In places used to dealing with cold weather, it's likely less of a stressor."
In Michigan, where Bucqueroux lives, an ice storm in December knocked out power over Christmas and with the weather, temperatures have been minus 14 at night with daytime wind chills of minus 35, she said.
"It's really bad," she said. "People with resources can bail and go to a hotel, but people who don't have much are really pressed, and they aren't always women –- same sex couples have the same issues. They don't necessarily know where the warming centers are where they can be safe or which shelters are open and not full. These are stressful times and they don't have much money."
Rita Smith, executive director of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the weather makes these incidents a "crime of access."
"It's more connected to the fact that people are home more," she said. "If the weather is really great, and people are out and about, working and going to school and not together, it is possible to reduce the violence."
"When there is an abusive person in the family, and they are forced to be together for longer periods of time, there is an increased potential for violence," said Smith, who advises families with an abusive member to always keep an "escape bag" on hand that might have a set of car keys, important records and documents.
"You also might want to have warm clothing because if you have to bust out of the house at the last minute, you want to make sure you don't freeze to death," she said.
Bucqueroux, who is the former executive director of the Michigan Victim Alliance, also advises that pet abuse can be a problem in bad weather. "Abusers are also the ones who kick the dog," she said.
More community resources, including on-the-ground policing and neighbors helping neighbors can help those in need during a weather emergency, she said.
"There are more incidents of extreme weather and we have to have the capacity to deal with these issues of outreach," she said. Cabin fever "is under-reported. It matters because people die when they don't know where to turn, and the odds go up in a natural disaster, just at the time when stress levels peak."
For help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE (7233).
Or contact RAINN's National Sexual Assault Hotline.