view full story- Domestic Violence Awareness Month brought into focus
In the time it takes you to read this story, at least eight women will be battered in a domestic violence incident, according to the FBI. Changing that disturbing fact and honoring survivors of domestic violence was on the agenda at "Hope in the Light of Day," a celebration held Thursday on the RiverMarket by the Family Justice Center and The Wellspring to mark the beginning of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which lasts throughout October.
"It's important to have events that spotlight domestic violence so that we can see where our community has been and where it's going," said Valerie Bowman, director of the Family Justice Center. "It's important to also remember those who have broken the cycle of violence and moved forward."
The event, which was the first of many that will take place throughout the month, featured survivors of domestic violence sharing their stories, local lawmakers and area residents.
Amanda McKenzie, a survivor of domestic violence who shared her story, said her batterer held a knife to her and her children and threatened to kill them.
"I was going to lay down my life for my kids," she said. "It's important for me to speak out, because I didn't expect to live that day and when I did, I thought to myself that if I can save just one family from having to go through what me and my children went through, it would all be worth it."
Bowman said bringing awareness of this issue and reframing the questions surrounding domestic violence are important. "We still have problems in our community with people asking, 'Why doesn't she leave?'" she said. "The real question we need to ask is, 'Why does he batter?' We will continue to ask that question in our community and throughout the state."
She said that despite efforts to reduce it, Louisiana ranks fourth in the nation in homicides committed by a man on a woman. "We've always been in the top 10 in the nation for victims that are killed," she said. "So it's just very important that we continue to be out there in the community talking about domestic violence and educating people."
Paying the price
Even though domestic violence rates are high, Bowman said Louisiana does a good job of prosecuting batterers. "Our community does a great job of holding batterers accountable," she said. "It's always wonderful to spotlight that and let people know that we are doing it right here in Northeast Louisiana."
District Attorney Jerry Jones said stricter laws are the only way to reduce the instances of domestic violence. "We won't change it by being nice," he said. "We'll change it by locking them up until hell freezes over."
Katie Herring, a child welfare consultant with the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, said children who are raised in a violent home and submitted to it daily tend to grow up to become batterers themselves. "No one should be forced to live in fear, not you, and especially not your children," she said. "We will no longer accept the victim's mentality, because as of right now — together — we are overcomers."
As for McKenzie and her children, she said they are getting better since the April night that changed their lives.
"We've had to rearrange our lives, because since they've been born, we've been through this, and now they don't have to go through it," she said. "It's a whole learning process. We've gotten a lot closer."
For more information on the events taking place throughout the month, visit wellspringalliance.org or call the crisis line at 322-1505.
ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB News Channel 5) Therapy dogs serve a variety of purposes, and one is making a difference in Central Louisiana. News Channel Five's Brittany Bedi met a dog on a special mission to help others. Bolles is a service dog who serves at the Grant Parish courthouse. He comforts victims and witnesses as they prepare to testify in court.
"Whenever kids come into our office to prepare for court, we let them work with the dog, to put them at ease," said District Attorney Jay Lemoine. "We take them in and show them the courtroom, so they'll know where they'll be, where they'll sit, what it'll be like if they have to testify, and he accompanies them all through that."
"We take Bolles down there, it's a videotaped and audiotaped interview, we will work with the child ahead of time, they have a room set up with toys to allow the child to play and try to get comfortable and relax," Lemoine said. "So Bolles will come in and do as much or as little with the child as they want to."
"He'll do some tricks to entertain them, they pet him, some lay on top of him and pull his ears or take him for a walk around the building to put them at ease."
Bolles was the first courthouse dog in Louisiana. Those who work with him say his interaction helps play a vital role in the judicial process.
"I've seen a marked improvement in our interviews with these children," said Jody Bullock, Grant Parish Sheriff's Office Chief of Detectives. "We get better interviews, they're more comfortable, and it's a big asset."
Bolles is making fast friends with people of all ages.
"Bolles is one of the family, he really is," Bullock said. "I love Bolles, everybody loves Bolles. He's become a fixture here."
Bolles arrived at the Grant Parish courthouse in 2012, and so far, his work has been considered a great success.
Before gamblers can collect their winnings, if more than $1,200, casinos first must fill out paperwork and check a database for back child support. The casinos subtract the arrears from the winnings and send the money to the state Department of Children and Family Services.
Through June, casinos intercepted for the state $2.05 million from 1,526 “non-custodial” parents who hadn’t kept up with their child support obligations, the agency reported Tuesday. The single largest collection to date came from the Boomtown Belle, of Harvey, in June totaling $23,465.
“Every single dollar paid goes to the family,” Lindsey deBlieux, DCFS spokeswoman, said Tuesday. The administrative costs are covered by state and federal funds.
But it’s a drop in the bucket from the $1.4 billion total arrears as of July, she said.
August is national Child Support Awareness month. Research has shown that child support collections significantly reduce the federal, state and local costs of providing cash assistance to single parent families, according to a DCFS news release.
The program, which began in September 2011, collects child support arrears from casino winnings totaling more than $1,200 at 19 state-licensed casinos. It is the product of legislation by then state Sen. Nick Gautreaux, now a lobbyist from Meaux. Other states with similar laws include Colorado, Mississippi, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio and West Virginia.
Failure to pay court-ordered child support also can result in liens against the non-payor’s property, seizure of assets, suspension of driver’s, business, professional, hunting or fishing licenses, interception of state and federal tax returns, passport denial and contempt of court charges, among other enforcement actions.
“Each collection made, large or small, proves that this program is an essential tool for collecting what is owed to Louisiana’s children,” said DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier in a news release.
In an unusual partnership, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro announced plans Tuesday to start a new conviction integrity unit in his office to be run with the Innocence Project, a legal defense group that investigates wrongful convictions.
In a city that has seen several decades-old murder and rape convictions overturned in recent years, Cannizzaro said the initiative would underscore his dedication to fairness for both victims and defendants. He did not describe the proposal in detail, which he said has been six months in the making. Funding remains in the works, he said.
"There is nothing more detrimental to the reputation and health of a criminal justice system than intentional misconduct by law enforcement agencies," Cannizzaro said in his annual "State of the Criminal Justice System" address at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward.
The speech came the night before the opening of the qualifying period for the November elections for several positions, including those of all Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges and the district attorney. One challenger has announced. Lionel "Lon" Burns, a criminal defense attorney, said Tuesday that he would run to unseat Cannizzaro.
Cannizzaro touted reforms he pushed since taking office in 2008, like establishing policies to prevent defendants from being let out of jail because prosecutors had missed the legally mandated deadline to file charges. He also said increased cooperation with the New Orleans Police Department and federal agencies has led to higher conviction rates for gun and violent crimes.
"I can report to the citizens of New Orleans that the criminal justice system is more robust, more aggressive, more modern and -- most importantly -- fairer than its predecessor, and is perhaps the strongest criminal justice system in the modern era of this city," Cannizzaro said.
The city's Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said in an email that he agreed the system has improved, but argued that "serious problems persist." He said the city's "user-pay" system to fund the Orleans Public Defenders Office is unreliable and inadequate, resulting in "dangerously high caseloads in some courts, raising the risk of unfair and erroneous outcomes," as well as undermining efficiency.
The room was packed with politicians and law-enforcement leaders, including U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, federal ATF Special Agent In Charge Philip Durham and Interim New Orleans Police Superintendent Lt. Michael Harrison.
Cannizzaro "has had a very, very, very close relationship with the New Orleans Police Department," Landrieu told the crowd, adding that last year, the Metropolitan Crime Commission found that felony conviction rates were at their highest since 1999.
City Councilman Jason Williams, a longtime criminal defense attorney, said he believed the district attorney's proposed conviction integrity unit would "change the entire dynamic of our criminal justice system."
"When the wrong person goes to jail, it means the perpetrator is left on our streets to offend and reoffend again," he told the audience.
Among the accomplishments the district attorney emphasized in his speech:
Cannizzaro said he renewed a focus on juvenile delinquency proceedings, through improving the juvenile diversion program for non-violent juveniles to steer them away from crime, while transferring violent offenders to the adult system.
He said he quadrupled the size of his "progressive" diversion program, which allows nonviolent defendants to avoid felony convictions. They receive assistance from counselors in finding a job, education, training and substance abuse counseling. The recidivism rate for participants is less than 5 percent, he said, compared to 50 percent for people leaving the Department of Corrections.
He said his office now provides support to 10 times more victims and witnesses than his predecessors.