Jim Beam column:Domestic violence is crisis

Published 8:13 am Thursday, December 23, 2021

Louisiana’s legislative auditor has concluded the state could do a better job of handling the domestic violence problem, and the numbers back up his report. The Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office, for example, reported 92 arrests over a recent three-day period and 32 of those arrests — one-third — involved domestic abuse charges.

Mike Waguespack, the auditor, said, “We conducted this audit because, in 2017, Louisiana had the second-highest rate of female homicide in the nation and the fifth-highest in 2018, with approximately 60 percent of female homicide victims killed by intimate partners in each year.”

Waguespack said the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated domestic violence because victims were trapped in their homes with their abusers during stressful times caused by self-isolation, quarantine measures, and job loss.

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The district attorney of East Baton Rouge Parish said domestic violence-related deaths in his parish increased 375 percent, from four deaths in 2019 to 19 in 2020.

The auditor said victims of domestic abuse come from all backgrounds, communities, education levels, economic levels, ethnicities, and religions. Abusers use coercive control that the auditor said may include a combination of abusive tactics, such as isolation, degradation, manipulation, physical and sexual abuse, threats, and punishment.

Perhaps worst of all, domestic abuse can have long-term effects on children. Waguespack said that could cause serious health problems, depression, substance abuse, tobacco use and unintended pregnancies. He added that children are also three times as likely as their peers to engage in violent behavior.

The audit says the state Department of Children and Family Services and the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement are responsible for administering federal grants to those who provide services.

Law enforcement responds to calls and is often the first point of contact in domestic violence cases. The judicial system prosecutes cases and issues protective orders.

The Domestic Violence Prevention Commission assists local and state leaders in developing and coordinating domestic violence programs, and also reviews those programs.

The Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence is the federally designated statewide coalition of shelters, non-residential programs and individuals working to end domestic violence.

It appears the structure is there, so what are the problems?

The auditor said there are gaps in services for victims. There is insufficient and inflexible funding. There is inconsistent implementation of strategies to protect victims.  And there is a lack of training for certain entities involved in addressing domestic violence.

Protective orders to protect victims are not consistently implemented across the state. The audit also found that not all sheriff’s offices have developed policies and procedures for the firearm relinquishment process as required by state law.

The biggest problem appears to be the fact that intervention programs aimed at perpetrators have no oversight or consistency across the state. The audit also found that the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement hasn’t completed a domestic violence awareness training program required for law enforcement officers. And judges and district attorneys aren’t required to have that training.

State law requires that public schools provide education on dating violence for students and employees, but not all public schools meet those requirements.

The audit found that Louisiana doesn’t have enough domestic violence shelter beds and support services to meet the needs of all victims.

Shelters provide emergency housing and other services, such as crisis intervention, linkage to other service providers such as food stamps, employment assistance, counseling, legal intervention, transportation, and services for children. Shelters and district attorneys provide legal support.

Oasis: A Safe Haven for Survivors of Domestic and Sexual Violence is the local shelter. It provides 24/7 support to victims and can be reached at 337-436-4552 or toll-free at 1-888-411-1333.

Central Louisiana has no domestic violence shelter, and shelters across the state had an average of 2,659 unmet requests per year. In addition, only 10 percent of domestic violence funding comes from state sources in Louisiana.

Every agency mentioned in the legislative audit report had an opportunity to respond and defend its performance. However, there is a desperate need for one major coordinating agency to tackle the domestic violence issue that is becoming a major social crisis.

The Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence appears to be the most logical choice for that responsibility, but it has no control over other government agencies. Members of the Legislature need to read this audit and come up with legislation to address the problems it uncovered.