Taking domestic violence out of the shadows

NPSO Deputies Tony Moran, left, and Ernest Sowell appear as victims with bandages in role-play training “In Her Shoes, In His Shoes”

D.A. hosts domestic violence interactive training

By Chadwick Melder for the Natchitoches Parish District Attorney’s Office

There was an unusual sight in the main courtroom of the Natchitoches Parish Courthouse last Tuesday afternoon. The room was filled with court personnel, law enforcement members, prosecutors and citizens. There were police officers and deputies with visible injuries and bandages on their bodies. Some of the prosecutors were seeking help to escape an abusive situation, while other court personnel were deceased as a result of domestic violence.

The people in the courtroom were not actually harmed. Instead, they were participating in a domestic violence awareness training called “In Her Shoes, In His Shoes Interactive Training” in which the participants role-play in following the real-life experiences of domestic violence victims. The program was hosted by District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington and was provided by the staff of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association.

Participants included officers from the Natchitoches City Police and Northwestern State University, deputies of the Natchitoches Parish Sheriff’s Office, staff members of the district attorney’s office and court personnel of the 10th Judicial District Court. Each participant was assigned a role of a domestic violence victim or family member. They re- lived the abuse experiences of a domestic violence victim. The participants were required to make critical choices in coping, managing and dealing with the ongoing effects of domestic violence. Each choice the participant made was met with a life response – a correct choice enlisted a positive response for the victim while a poor choice led to further abuse, dependency on the abuser which would continue the cycle or even violence or death.

“This important training has provided me and my staff with more insight into how we can continue providing support to domestic violence victims. I thank the law enforcement agencies and the staff who actively participated in the program,” Harrington said. Valencia Landry is a program facilitator and a victim services staff attorney for LDAA. “Some of our victims in the role-playing experience utilized the resources and support available to help them recover from the abuse and then moved on to lead productive lives. Other participants who did not take necessary steps to recover ended up recycling in the abuse or even become deceased,” said Landry.

Penny Davis is a program facilitator and a victim liaison coordinator for the LDAA. “It was impressive to see all the stakeholders participating in the program today. We have police, prosecutors, victims advocates, and court personnel that joined us today, all of whom have a role in domestic violence cases in the court system. Although they have many years of experience among them, we feel this program provides a unique insight from the victim’s point of view on what they go through after a domestic violence incident,” said Davis. Davis also touted the benefits of the interactive training for the stakeholders because they have an opportunity to see the post-incident needs of a victim that may not be apparent during the initial law enforcement response or a court proceeding.

“The program gives them insight into the basic needs of a victim that we may not always be aware of. This may include shelter needs or deciding on when do return home, dealing with employers after missing work, or children’s school needs and addressing the situation with a school administrator.” In Louisiana, 33 percent of women and 28 percent of men experience intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence or intimate partner stalking in their lifetimes.

Also, every parish in Louisiana has experienced at least one domestic violence homicide. Eighty-one percent of female homicides in Louisiana are committed by a partner or ex-partner. The Natchitoches Parish Sheriff’s Office was present with members of the patrol, investigations, narcotics and communications divisions attending.

Staff members of the D.A.’s Office participate in domestic violence interactive training.

Deputy Jessica Shilling, administrative assistant in the patrol division, participated in the training with a unique perspective. Shilling is a victim advocate and a domestic abuse survivor. “Today’s training is a reminder of all the processes a victim must go through to get help. It’s not easy to face these challenges, especially if someone doesn’t have the means or family support. And, sometimes they don’t know where help is available and may not get the help they need.

Law enforcement professionals and the court system work diligently to assist and support domestic violence victims, but the whole process can still be overwhelming,” said Shilling. Shilling also compared the resources available today to her own experience as a domestic violence victim. “First, when you are a victim there are so many emotional tolls you experience. You are humiliated. You are scared. And, reaching out for help may not be something you want to do because you don’t know if there will be repercussions or just embarrassment. There are certain things I know I would have done differently if I knew of the many resources available today for victims.” Cloyd Benjamin Jr. is the first assistant district attorney for the Natchitoches Parish District Attorney’s Office. “This is a very compelling training. It provides us with first-hand knowledge that victims face when seeking support relating to domestic abuse. It helped me seek new ways to help a victim and try to ensure they are not trapped in a hopeless circle.”

District Attorney’s Office members Cloyd Benjamin Jr., left, with bandages and “deceased” and Dwain Spillman participate as abuse victims and various court personnel

“In the role-play training today, my victim became deceased. So it really showed a realistic side of this issue. By the way, the scenarios presented today are in fact real. They follow the facts in actual cases that have occurred in other jurisdictions. So when I say my victim in the training died because she did not get the help she needed, I know this really happened to someone and that has an effect on you,” said Benjamin. Benjamin also discussed the role of the district attorney’s office in supporting crime victims.

“When we receive an abuse case from law enforcement, we involve our victim’s assistance coordinator. We connect the victim with our coordinator and our prosecutor so they can have a line of communication established to keep them informed of the case process and to get them the support they need.” Alice Hardison serves as the victim’s assistance coordinator for the district attorney’s office. “Today training was a great success for us attending. It provided yet another tool for us to be more knowledgeable and more pro-active in supporting our victims. It gave us more insight into what victims face and also taught us what decisions a victim must make in seeking the appropriate help.” “The program also highlighted how dangerous domestic violence is and the consequences of going back into a situation without first getting support and help from family members, the court system, or other victim advocates,” said Hardison. Hardison added that “domestic violence is far-reaching and does not discriminate. It affects all demographics, socio-economic levels, or family makeup. We as a community are all partners in facing domestic violence.”

There are resources available for all domestic violence victims. Those in need may contact the district attorney’s office at (318) 357-2214 or may call the statewide victim help hotline at (888) 411-1333.