It’s estimated 40 percent of Mississippi women will experience physical or sexual violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime. Just last year, the state’s domestic violence shelters received more than 45,000 crisis calls. MPB’s Evelina Burnett reports on new state efforts to help victims – and prevent the violence before it starts.
About 2,000 women and children in Mississippi seek refuge at the state's 14 domestic violence shelters every year. About three years ago, one of those women was "Jane," whose name has been changed to protect her privacy. Jane says the troubles in her marriage had started almost from the beginning. Her husband was controlling, demanding, and eventually, physically violent.
"... He says he just back-handed me, but I literally left the ground," she recalls from one incident. "I had a black eye and a busted mouth."
Jane had a stroke in her late 30s, brought on in part by stress. She had to learn to walk, to talk, to start completely over. And it was that experience, plus one final incident with her husband, that changed her life.
"He got a phone call and he jumped up and he put his shoes on," she recalls. "I was on my computer and he was sitting at the end of the couch. And he cursed at me, and I don't remember exactly, he just kind of popped me in the face."
She called 911. Mississippi's police and sheriff departments responded to more than 10,000 domestic violence calls last year. Still, with more than four times that many crisis calls coming in, it’s clear there are still many people in need of help.
"One of our biggest problems is victim blaming," says Sandy Middleton, executive director for the Center for Violence Prevention in Jackson. "The number one question people ask is why does she stay, and that’s a form of victim blaming.
"We certainly shouldn't be holding a victim accountable for an offender's behavior," she adds. "The better question we can ask is why does he abuse and what can we do to stop or change his behavior.”
Middleton is the vice chair of the Governor’s Taskforce on Domestic Violence, which last year recommended the state’s victims services funding be consolidated in one office. She says it’ll allow the state to see where there are gaps or overlaps in services.
"It just makes good sense so we can make our money go the furthest when it comes to how we provide services for victims," she says.
The Office Against Interpersonal Violence was formed within the state health department on July 1. Heather Wagner, its director, says among the office’s mandates are creating certification standards for service providers, coordinating reporting and data collection, and ultimately creating a state-wide plan for how Mississippi will address interpersonal violence as a public health issue.
"What we are hoping to be able to accomplish is to be able to deliver a very concise, cumulative, comprehensive message about the health impact of domestic violence and sexual assault on our citizens and take the necessary steps we can to promote prevention," she says.
Stacey Myers is the Jackson County shelter director for the Gulf Coast Women’s Center for Nonviolence, which is where Jane came after leaving her husband. Myers says 180 women and 150 children have been helped by the Jackson County shelter since it opened three years ago.
"Everyone knows someone who has been affected by domestic violence – it’s too rampant to not. But it’s easy to stick your head in the sand and not pay attention," she says.
Jane recalls she first saw a flyer for the shelter at a doctors office. Now she’s the one leaving information, in hair salons, churches, wherever she goes, to let other women know there is help out there when they reach the same point she did on that day almost three years ago.
"I just couldn't take it any more," she says. "That was the straw that broke the camel's back. I was just like, no more, no more. And I didn't know that it would take me on this journey, but I'm so glad it did."
The national domestic violence hotline's phone number is 1-800-799-SAFE. For more information on Mississippi services, visit www.mcadv.org.