A state's challenge to domestic violence

Louisiana, with the highest death toll for women, tries to reeducatepolice and public

As a New Orleans cop, Gifford Riess knew what to do in cases of domestic violence.

So when it happened in her own life, she did everything by the book. When an ex-boyfriend started stalking her, she changed her locks. When he chased her down, beat her, and threatened to kill her, she pressed charges and got a restraining order.

But in the end, no paper could protect Ms. Riess, who was killed by an attacker who also took his own life. Her death shook this good-timey town, partly because Riess was a cop and partly because she was a photogenic sorority sister. But it also was tragic confirmation of a recent report: Louisiana has the nation's highest rate of women killed by men.

Theories for why this is true abound: lax state laws on gun ownership, inadequate law-enforcement training for domestic incidents, underfunding of programs to help women. Some even argue that the violence has deeper cultural roots in the notion of Southern male honor, which men occasionally defend in lethal ways.

To make progress against the high death toll, cities across Louisiana are trying to educate citizens and police officials about domestic violence. Yet much remains to be done, and the state is, in some ways, starting from scratch.

"Until this year, I didn't have a clue what domestic violence was," says Glenny Warceski, Gifford's mother. "Then it happened to my daughter."

An ignominious title

The latest statistics indicate the depth of the problem. Using FBI numbers, the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control group in Washington, found that 89 women were murdered by men in Louisiana in 1997, a rate of 3.94 per 100,000 people. Nevada, the next ranking state, had a rate of 3.03.

Of Louisiana's 89 victims, 75 were killed by someone they knew, and more than half were killed with guns. Indeed, each of the top 10 states on the list has relatively lax gun-control laws, the report asserts, and all but three of the 10 states are located in the South.

Gun-rights groups say the report is biased, calling the Violence Policy Center one of the nation's "most extreme" antigun groups.

But women's advocates say the report highlights a problem they've been struggling with for years. "The numbers don't surprise me," says Merni Carter of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Baton Rouge, La. "We may be first this year and fifth next year, but they're always pretty high."

Like many advocates, Ms. Carter thinks guns are just one factor that makes Louisiana's murder rate for women so high. In this poor, rural state, police reaction to domestic-violence incidents varies widely. Some cops break up a violent incident, telling the male partner to walk around the block to "cool off," some order the man to seek counseling, and some even arrest both parties without trying to figure out who the primary aggressor is.

"The solution is educating the public about the problem," says Judy Benitez of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault. "People always ask 'Why doesn't she just leave?' The better question is, 'Why does he do that, and why does the criminal-justice system let him get away with it?' "

Statistically, few battered women leave their abusive environments, and with good reason. Like Riess, many who leave end up dead. But for women who do leave, there are shelters like the Metropolitan Battered Women's Program. The typical client at this shelter, located in an industrial neighborhood outside New Orleans, is 22 years old, has three or four kids, and no high-school diploma. But director Dale Standifer says the shelter takes in 500 women and children a year from all economic levels.

Like many advocates for women, Ms. Standifer says New Orleans and other Louisiana towns should change the way domestic violence is handled. Her model would be Duluth, Minn., where all health and justice officials have one common goal: to keep women safe.

It's a controversial approach to some, who argue that tilting toward women at the outset violates the principles of equal treatment and presumption of innocence.

Trying a new approach

In New Orleans itself, police and city officials are revamping their approach to domestic violence. In two years, New Orleans has spent $1.5 million in federal funds to reeducate police and beef up services for battered women. During the same period, the city's overall murder rate has dropped in half.

"Rather than try to mediate ... or give him a cooling off period, we've found that a pro-arrest policy could relieve some of the domestic-violence incidents," says Bridget Bain, spokeswoman for Mayor Marc Morial.

Of course, some activists argue that the best way to deal with domestic violence is to change young people's attitudes, before their problems enter the criminal-justice system.

That was the notion behind a rally held by Tulane and Loyola Universities last month. At the rally, two young rape victims told their harrowing tale to a few hundred students holding candles. A bell rang every 15 seconds, reminding the students that somewhere in America, a woman is being sexually assaulted.

Darrick McGowan, a graduate student at Tulane, former football player, and head of the Tulane Men Against Rape (TMAR), says few men on campus take women's issues seriously. "It's very hard to get guys to be members of TMAR, because of the stereotype that you have to be a nerd to join."

But Gifford's mom, Glenny Warceski, says she's been heartened by the changes she is seeing in the New Orleans Police Department. Asked if she is hopeful, Warceski smiles. "Oh yes, and I'm very persistent."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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