Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Obama Responds to Domestic Violence Legal Aid Question in New Orleans



I'm working on a Domestic Violence Awareness Month post for BlogHer.com, and had planned to include the question from a woman in my hometown to Barack Obama during his visit to New Orleans on October 15. The president was keeping his promise to visit the city before the year's end to check on progress four years after Hurricane Katrina. He held a Town Hall at the University of New Orleans, and I couldn't go. Dental surgery. However, I was able to watch his appearance live on TV.

One woman's question stuck with me regarding the need for more legal aid funding for victims of domestic violence. I thought I would include her question in my BlogHer post. However, as I was working on that, I decided it was too long, and too much. I know we need more funding, but I didn't have the time to gather the figures behind the fact. And so, I realized that it would better to post her question here on my blog as a reference link with a little commentary following.

Here's her question and the president's response.
Q Hi, Mr. President. My name is Narkise Barack (phonetic).

THE PRESIDENT: Is that right? Wow! (Laughter.) You and me. (Laughter.)

Q And I'm a single mom of three daughters. I have my eldest here -- she's 12 years old.

THE PRESIDENT: Hey, you. What's her name?

Q Yasmine.

THE PRESIDENT: Yasmine? That's a nice name.

Q Yes. And she goes to Lusher, which is one of the top schools here. (Applause.) My question has to do with an article that came out today in the Times Picayune in which it reported that Tom Perrelli, the Associate Attorney General, was lauding local non-governmental and governmental agencies in the effort to help women who were victims of domestic violence.

I don't know if you know, but the rates of domestic violence rose quite dramatically after Katrina and have continued to rise. And one of the problems is we've got agencies that are helping women with things like therapy and food and help with their children. The problem is that our legal aid clinics -- Tulane, Loyola, NoLAC -- all of these clinics have been so overburdened with cases that have to do with Katrina, that a lot of people can't get access to legal help.

Now, the segment of the population that's most suffering from this are women, and by extension, children. You can sit in court in Jefferson Parish, in Orleans Parish, for a whole day and watch a whole docket of cases, and not a single woman has legal counsel. So I wanted to ask you -- I know that you and Mr. Biden have been supporters of the Violence Against Women Act, and I was wondering what you can do to ensure that women in Southeast Louisiana have their civil rights protected and their due process protected. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: That's a great question. As I mentioned, speaking broadly, obviously there continue to be concerns about crime in the region, post-Katrina. And not only have we helped to fund Mayor Nagin and others to be able to rehire cops and rebuild police stations and so forth, but also to build a more effective judicial system, because that goes with it. We've set up a violent crimes task force that is up and running, and coordinates between the FBI and all the various local and state agencies.

So there are a range of steps that we've taken generally to address crime. But I think you're making a really powerful point, which is that when it comes to domestic violence, oftentimes that's under-reported because women don't feel that they have the support they need in order to step out from those situations. The issue of legal representation is still a big problem.

So what I'd like to do is to learn more specifically about what's happening here. I will ask -- I'll probably ask Tom Perrelli, since you mentioned him, who is Deputy Attorney General, to make sure that he investigates specifically how we can work more effectively with the legal aid organizations down here to provide more support. So thank you for bringing that to my attention. That's great. (Applause.) Transcript at LA Times
The president was correct that his man Perrelli is the one who should have an answer. The Deputy Attorney General preceded his boss and was in the city the day before talking about the domestic violence crisis in Katrina's aftermath.
“It’s rare that any community would face devastation across every aspect of the system, from transitional housing to courts,” said U.S. Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, in visit to the metro area.

Perrelli spent the day in New Orleans, meeting with advocates who work with domestic violence victims and getting a first-hand look at efforts to confront the problem.

“Louisiana, historically, has had incidents of domestic violence among one of the worst in the states and [was] number one based on the 2007 data, the most recent data we have,” Perrelli said.

The problem, though, extends beyond the city limits and into rural areas. One such instance occurred last month in rural Livingston Parish. That is where 50-year-old Dennis Carter killed his estranged wife, his son and his two-year-old grandson, before killing himself. Carter’s wife had filed a restraining order against him. Victims’ advocates said protecting domestic violence victims in rural areas remains a challenge.

“We’re talking about very rural, remote communities, where truly innovative solutions need to be found for those needs,” said Catherine Pierce, with the Office of Violence Against Women. (New Orleans Top Stories)
We had horrible domestic violence stats before the storm, and just as domestic violence is reported to have increased across the nation with the recession, cases of domestic violence seem to have worsened as Gulf Coast families buckled under Katrina devastation.

And yet, the domestic violence crisis down here, the increase and the need for funding still doesn't get the media attention you'd expect. Yes, the media will cover a murder but doesn't do as much as it could to make the public more aware of the signs of domestic violence and what we can all do to prevent abuse among family members.

For instance, I surfed our daily newspaper's site, NOLA.com aka The Times Picayune, for stories on the domestic violence crisis. Despite it being domestic violence awareness month, the paper's search engine found only one story specifically focused on domestic violence and proactive solutions published in the last three months. It's about a program in St. Bernard Parish. What appears to be a second such story on domestic violence funding is a repeat of the first St. Bernard article, and the only other stories are those about specific domestic violence crimes, in other words, run of the mill if it bleeds it leads news.

In fact the only other story I can see to add is one about Perrelli's visit and his praise for the city's progress under duress.

Even in the paper's story about the president's visit to the city in which the single mother's question is mentioned, the reporter underplays the value of her query to the president, writing "But the rest of the queries concerned domestic violence prevention, immigration laws and the ongoing health-care debate -- issues that could come up in any American city, even if some of them are felt more acutely in post-Katrina New Orleans."

My adventure in reading about domestic violence and New Orleans causes me to say that the action vice president for NOW is most likely right, domestic violence is not getting the attention from mainstream media that such a serious topic deserves.

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