Dale Standifer is the director of the Metropolitan Battered Women's Shelter, a 30-bed facility just over the Jefferson Parish line. Inside, the nondescript building is a cozy and cheerful place, with purple and lavender dominating the dcor. There are indoor and outdoor playgrounds, closets stocked with necessities like school uniforms and toiletries, and a sunny kitchen in which one of the five current residents is sharing a segmented orange with her toddler son. It's also command central, right now, for women's services in New Orleans. When the phone rings at the Metro Shelter these days, it could be for anything. Because several of the other crisis centers serving women in the New Orleans area were damaged by wind, flooding and subsequent fire wrought by Katrina's effects, one of the first things that was done was to forward all crisis lines to the undamaged Metro building and its consolidated staff of volunteers and employees when it reopened Oct. 3. "All the lines come here," says Standifer. "We just got a call from someone who needed to get a physical. We get them all."
Life after Hurricane Katrina is a landscape laden with hurt, in every quantifiable way. Homes are destroyed or damaged, possessions wrecked, familiar neighborhoods and landmarks are unidentifiable, strewn with debris, sodden with mold. And it's been well reported that we're all a little bit crazy -- drinking more, self-medicating in various ways, even committing suicide. Hopefully, the greater proportion of south Louisianans impacted by Katrina have been able to absorb the wreckage, physical and psychic, and soldier on, letting the stress inflicted by the storm become the new, sick normal. But for many, the fallout of the storm is a new and frightening load of dangers that are far from normal. Organizations serving victims of sexual assault and domestic violence are reporting a disturbing uptick in the per capita frequency and the severity of attacks in post-K New Orleans. With a social service infrastructure that's as frayed as anything else in New Orleans these days, reaching and serving victims of some of society's worst crimes is a daunting challenge.
Statistics, either gathered anecdotally by crisis workers or in studies like those collected by the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, indicate across the board that violence against vulnerable populations increases after a major stressor like a natural disaster. (The National Center for PTSD's Web site shows counted incidents of partner abuse reported to the police increasing 14 percent after the 1993 Midwestern floods and 46 percent after the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens. The site also noted similar increases following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.)
THE PHONE CONSOLIDATION AT METRO IS representative of a new, general compression of resources serving victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in greater New Orleans. Before the storm, although all the groups were in contact, the Metro Shelter served Jefferson Parish, providing housing, therapy, child care and job counseling. The Catholic Charities-funded Crescent House, headed up by Mary-Claire Landry, president of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, provided the same services to victims in Orleans Parish. The YWCA, run by Tracey Rubinstein, was the locus of the city's main rape-crisis program and hotline. Charity Hospital housed LSU's staff of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE), who performed forensic exams on sexual-assault victims.
On the justice side of the fence, the NOPD had the DV Task Force, implemented in 2001, featuring eight detectives specifically assigned to a domestic-violence unit -- one responsible for cases in each district. The three attorneys at Project SAVE (Spousal Abuse Victims Empowerment), the advocacy arm of Crescent House, assisted victims of domestic violence in navigating the courts. Whether or not the systems comprised a well-oiled machine, they were an admirable array of services.
And then Katrina hit, dealing blows to resources at the same time it generated fresh needs. So, like those in often-overstressed and under-funded nonprofit groups do, they thought on their feet.
Once shelter residents were safely evacuated to other shelters out of Katrina's path, Standifer, Landry and Gale Gowland of the St. Bernard Battered Women's Program met to assess their resources. Crescent House's buildings were damaged; the St. Bernard facilities were completely wiped out. Later, they would learn that the YWCA building on Tulane Avenue and Jefferson Davis Parkway was flooded out as well. The three formed an umbrella association -- the New Orleans Regional Alliance Against Abuse (NORAA) -- that would group their resources together.
"We did a two-day retreat and started talking about the way we wanted to be together and share resources," says Standifer. "Early on, there were days when whoever had her wits about her was in charge. You know -- if Mary's crying that day, Mary shouldn't be in charge. The attorneys are watching the kids, I'm answering the crisis line."
Like everywhere else these days, the other end of the crisis line is a tricky place. Fewer calls are coming in, and while part of that drop is certainly due to the three-quarter population reduction, veterans like Standifer see other trends behind it. For one, a population of victims who are so overwhelmed by the demands of post-Katrina life that they shift dealing with their abuse to the bottom of the to-do list. Only 4 percent of battered women ever seek refuge in a shelter, and after many have already dealt with multiple shelters and bureaucracies, the last thing they want is to encounter another one. Going through a tiresome legal process to hold their batterers accountable, or even blocking out the time to use resources like therapy or job counseling that many women's shelters provide, in the face of so many other exhausting imperatives -- the insurance adjuster, getting FEMA on the phone, getting the kids in school -- is only a must-do if the victim makes it one. And often, she doesn't.
"For a lot of these women, living with a jerk is better than going to another shelter," says Mary-Claire Landry, who agrees that on top of other stresses, the housing shortage is a new wrinkle. "The initial trauma, the scope of this thing ... people are just so focused on basic needs. The level of frustration, plus the overwhelmingness of the housing shortage, rents have doubled -- this is new territory for us."
According to Landry, the battered-women's movement had already been moving toward a new model of housing for victims. "The question is always, why doesn't she leave?" says Landry. "Well, an answer to that is, why should she have to leave? It's her residence, too. So we're trying to work with the courts to hold batterers more accountable, keep women where they are, keep the kids where they are and be less disruptive to families -- keep protective orders enforced and not have women uproot themselves from their jobs and their families and go into hiding."
To that end, Crescent House, whose shelter space was damaged, is providing daily "respite" services from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., where women who aren't prepared to leave their residences can get child care, therapy and job counseling. Meanwhile, those who are staying in shelters will most likely be staying for longer than they might have before, due to the lack of affordable housing in the city. This could present a problem to organizations who report on the numbers of victims served when applying for funding; a lower turnover means a lower head count overall, and may translate to a perceived lesser need for grant money.
On top of housing issues, throw the standard new New Orleans cocktail of an unclear address and dealing with FEMA into the already volatile mix of a family violence situation, and see what you get. Landry notes that the economic disempowerment that turns up frequently in cases of domestic violence is especially present here.
"In many cases," Landry says, "he's isolating her, he's applied for the household's FEMA check in his name, so she's not getting those resources -- it's very compounded for women who are at risk." Theresa Marchese, an attorney with Project SAVE, finds that a greater need has sprung up around jurisdiction issues in civil legal assistance. Project SAVE remains in touch with many pre-Katrina cases involving those still living in other parishes or other areas to where they had evacuated, and they now find themselves dealing with the problem of enforcing protective orders or child custody issues for victims living outside of New Orleans.
Tania Tetlow, director of Tulane University Law School's 4-year-old domestic-violence legal clinic, agrees. "We're seeing an increasing complexity of legal problems," she says. "Some of our existing clients are still in evacuation, with nowhere to go, no housing. They're having to negotiate with the batterer over the FEMA check or the trailer, because it all goes to whoever called first. And other states are traditionally supposed to give full faith and credit to protective orders, but often you have to go and register the order in the new state, which the victim may not know." Tetlow suggests that the reduced population in the city may be a blessing in disguise: "Judges are going to have to deal with some very complex issues, of dealing with custody issues or dividing up insurance benefits across state lines. Right now, hopefully, we can take that opportunity of a reduced docket to get all our ducks in a row." She also notes, ruefully, that many New Orleanians, compliments of Katrina, might now find themselves unusually able to empathize with women trying to negotiate abusive situations. "We're all experiencing a lot of the problems DV victims deal with now," she says. "Displacement, uncertainty, sitting on the phone with 800 numbers for hours at a time."
PROBABLY THE MOST FRIGHTENING trend in the post-Katrina New Orleans is that, though there are fewer overall reported incidents of domestic violence, there are more first-time instances and, some say, more aggressive attacks. Sgt. Ernie Joseph, who heads up NOPD's Domestic Violence Unit (currently down from eight staffers pre-Katrina to three detectives and Joseph), reports that while before Katrina the city averaged about 80 reported incidents, currently the reports roll in at a rate of about 60 a week -- only a 25 percent drop for a 75 percent population decrease. "We haven't been necessarily seeing more aggravated cases, but in a lot of cases, the victim goes right to a shelter without even calling the police," says Joseph. (NOPD refers cases that reach them first to Crescent House.) "What we are seeing is people not taking as long to call the police. Usually it's an average of eight incidents before they call -- now you see people calling on the first incident, the second incident."
Dale Standifer of the Metropolitan Battered Women's Shelter has seen the same trend as well as an increase in the level of violence. "We get a lot of, 'Before the storm he only slapped me around, but now he just beats me and beats me,'" she says. "We've seen some really violent things. One lady had been so brutally raped by her husband that we had to turn around and send her to the ER.
"He had been abusive before, but not to that extent."
Ecoee Rooney is a forensic nurse with the SANE program formerly housed at Charity Hospital. (At press time, housed as part of the LSU Medical Center emergency unity set up in the Convention Center, but moved recently to the former location of the Lord & Taylor department store at the New Orleans Center). Rooney has seen some of that same trend: "The level of violence -- a lot higher level in the patients I've seen. More primal -- more bite marks, those types of injuries."
The SANE program, which before the storm consisted of 20 nurses trained to process "rape kits" -- forensic exams that gathered evidence from victims for use at trial, as well as refer them to other resources for counseling or advocacy -- is the only one of its kind in the city. The program director decided not to return to the city, and their base of operations at Charity was lost. Jean Holland, a SANE nurse, carried the computer containing patient records up five flights of stairs, away from rising water, to salvage it while Charity was evacuated. Subsequently there was a debate as to whether to continue the program.
Ultimately, Rooney was called back, and they set up in donated M*A*S*H tents ("The first time I unrolled this tent, all this sand came out," says Rooney. "So you know it used to be in the desert somewhere,") in the University Hospital parking lot. "Before the storm, we each had 12-hour shifts of being on call per month," Rooney says. "Now it's a week at a time of 24-hour on call," for each of the four nurses. So far, Rooney estimates having seen an average of six patients per month since the SANE program was reactivated Oct. 29, down from an average of 30 per month before the storm -- although Rooney suspects these numbers are low.
"Most vulnerable populations don't ever speak it," she says. "Students, the elderly, the disabled, people with substance-abuse problems, sex workers, other people who are uncomfortable with the police." The Mardi Gras weekend brought a month's post-K average business -- seven victims -- to the SANEs at the Convention Center.
Once survivors brought to other emergency rooms or facilities are stabilized, they're sent to wherever the SANE nurses are located so that Rooney and her counterparts can do the exam and, if need be, hook the victim up with counseling and potentially other, non-related services. "People come in and we can connect them to social services, vouchers for free voice mail, give them clothes," says Rooney, who seems dedicated to providing as positive an experience as she can to the survivors who do come her way. Her tent, with low lighting, cozy couches and a private exam area is a soothing spot, though it's a far cry from the newly decorated SANE center lost with Charity. "I swear, it looked like the W Hotel," Rooney says. The homey touches are meant to ease victims' discomfort in a non-clinical setting. But she assumes there are many who never get there.
"Post-Katrina -- to a lot of people [the assault is] just one more shitty thing that's happened," Rooney says. "You lost your house, your job, you're in a different school, you're away from your family, so this is one more horrible thing to add to the pile of misery, and plod forward." Rooney works in tandem with the city's rape crisis network -- made up of the SANE nurses, the Sexual Assault Recovery Assistance Center (SARA, the reorganized version of the YWCA rape crisis center), NOPD's sex crimes unit, the district attorney's office, and the New Orleans crime lab -- to try and rebuild a system of care for survivors, in one of the resource-pooling networks that's looking more like the post-Katrina norm.
CURRENTLY, THE NORAA NETWORK encompasses Metro, Crescent House, the SARA center, Project SAVE and the St. Tammany Parish Child Advocacy Center, with a total of about 30 staff members, using creative solutions to make up for lost funding, office space and staffers. "In some cases we're pooling our money -- one group pays three-quarters of an employee's salary, another pays one-quarter, and she gets office space from somewhere else," says Standifer. The plan that was borne out of necessity is shaping up to be a new, more comprehensive model for women's services in the greater New Orleans area and the region. Tighter ranks will also help as the myriad organizations attempt to convince funders -- a chunk of each group's funds comes from the Department of Justice, through the Violence Against Women Act, and those funds are up for renewal this summer -- that a reduced population doesn't necessarily mean reduced needs.
"We need to be more holistic in our approach," says Standifer. "My dream is one-stop shopping -- adding sexual-assault services was a great step in that direction. And we've always accepted women with substance-abuse issues, but we'd refer them to other agencies. So I'd like to start providing more services under one roof," she says, positing that, especially after Katrina, victims needing different kinds of help will be more likely to seek it with fewer bureaucracies to confront. Standifer, who is also a private investigator, is both motherly and tough -- the kind of person who might be played by Judi Dench in the movie of her life. And her goals, for the most part, have not been diminished by Katrina's blow. Future projects include more outreach among populations, like those Rooney mentioned, who are less likely to seek out help, like sex workers; Standifer also wants to employ more bilingual staffers in order to serve the new Hispanic population in the city. Adaptability, though, is the most paramount virtue these days. "I used to make long-term strategic plans," Standifer says. And laughs.
- Donn Young
- "We did a two-day retreat and started talking about the way we wanted to be together and share resources. Early on, there were days when whoever had her wits about her was in charge." Dale Standifer, director, Metropolitan Battered Women's Shelter