Domestic violence is one of the most pervasive social problems facing our city. It's also costly. U.S. Department of Justice data suggests that domestic violence costs $67 billion annually in medical bills, property damage, police and fire services, victim services, mental-health care, and lost worker productivity.
Statewide, such cost estimates are hard to come by because Louisiana -- unlike many other states -- does not require law enforcement entities to track domestic-violence incidents. That must change. We cannot adequately combat a problem without first tracking its impact.
Lacking adequate understanding of the problem, misconceptions thrive. Many in our community still believe that domestic violence is a private matter between two people. Only with widespread education -- undertaken at schools, churches and community gatherings, as well as in the courts and with law enforcement personnel -- will such attitudes change.
The problem may seem daunting, but interventions can make a difference. The New Orleans Police Department and local sheriffs bear the burden of the first response, and officers must be given not only training in domestic violence but also the time to write a report for each call. Some estimates say that battered women call police seven times before they actually leave their abusers. (Ninety-five percent of perpetrators are male.) Proper reporting allows the patterns of each relationship to emerge and gives officers in subsequent calls a better base on which to build.
In our recent three-part series on domestic violence ("Why Doesn't She Leave?" June 11; "Beaten and Blamed," June 18; and "Called to the Scene," June 25), we learned that New Orleans has made progress against domestic violence since Marc Morial first formed the Mayor's Domestic Violence Task Force in 1994. Across the city, there are real signs of progress:
· Tulane University Law School's Domestic Violence Law Clinic is a welcome addition to local services. A course in domestic violence will be a prerequisite for law students accepted to the clinic. Tulane and other local universities should require similar courses for anyone entering fields that encounter the problem -- medicine, social work and education, to name a few.
· The first-year results of the NOPD Second District's pilot project on domestic violence are encouraging. Second District officers are making better arrests, and are better identifying the real aggressors in a situation. This is crucial, because victims who are arrested for defending themselves often have to pay a steep bail bond and miss time at work. Plus, when victims are given perpetrator status, they become ineligible for most legal-aid services available to battered women. They can even lose custody of their children.
For perpetrators and victims, the next steps after police intervention are the criminal and municipal courts. Many abusive situations, if unchecked, escalate to serious injury and homicide. Courts should ensure that police reports and evidence are sorted through in a timely manner. In Orleans Parish Civil District Court's domestic relations sections, judges are asked to make prompt decisions -- about stay-away orders, child custody, family housing and finances. Yet, even though their domestic violence caseload has mushroomed over the past year, these judges have no case screeners or social workers to interview and assist victims. That is a gaping hole in the local socio-economic safety net.
Courts also must work together in a more cohesive fashion. Currently, decisions made by one local court are not necessarily shared with others. Local families might have concurrent civil and criminal cases; conflicting orders are not uncommon. One possible solution: establishing a Family Court for Orleans Parish. Each family's cases -- from juvenile, civil, criminal and municipal courts -- would be dealt with under one roof, in front of the same judge, who could then begin to understand the dynamics of that family and order appropriate interventions. Some other, smaller parishes have such courts.
New Orleans also must try to combat the problem of domestic violence at its roots. The police department's COMSTAT reports show which neighborhoods are having the most problems with domestic violence. The city should use this data to link residents to resources to find jobs, mental-health services and treatment for drugs and alcohol.
Many of these suggestions require a change in attitude or strategy, not new resources. But some necessary changes will require funding beyond the city's small domestic violence budget. Local companies should be encouraged to step up to the plate -- by donating hotel rooms, supplying volunteers, or underwriting local programs. Many local causes compete for corporate funding, but employers should keep in mind that domestic violence directly affects their companies. Employees, ashamed that they've been beaten, will often miss work rather than show up with a black eye or a bruised face. Workplaces also are common sites of confrontations, because even if a victim moves and changes her phone number, her abuser still knows one place where he can find her -- on the job.
Domestic violence is linked to violence in general, especially for children who have grown up in violent households. Making our city safer for battered women and their families makes it safer for everyone.