St. Charles Parish domestic abuse cases rise, bill sought to aid victims

Domestic violence cases have more than doubled in St. Charles Parish this year, although local officials say increasing public awareness and networking are more likely bringing the total reported closer to the actual number of cases occurring.

Some 148 cases have been reported so far this year compared to 68 last year for the entire year, which are figures based on referrals from the parish District Attorney’s office to the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children that includes the parish is its service area.

The group increased its presence in the parish last year, including with the DA and Sheriff’s offices, and United Way of St. Charles.

“We definitely think the increase is due to the DA referring cases to us, as well as clients contacting us directly,” said Rebecca Rainey, the center’s program director. “I think the people are definitely working together more. We have a coordinated community response team with the Sheriff’s office, DA, etc. I think the dialogue is definitely improving, whereas people were doing their own thing and not communicating.”

“We also saw an increase with callers calling for other people,” which Rainey said they didn’t get the prior year and is likely due to a growing awareness among those who want to help women and children caught in the cycle of domestic violence that often extends to economic instability.

This is an important turnaround from the stigma that typically accompanies domestic abuse.

“A lot of comments we hear are fear of reporting it to the police,” Rainey said. “They feel nobody is going to do anything. Also, St. Charles Parish is very small with concerns about getting restraining orders, etc. where everybody knows everybody.”

But she said their conversation with the DA is helping bring meaningful change.

“We’re coaching people on what to say when you call 911,” she said, adding, they’ve been advised by Sheriff’s offices to call again if callers don’t get the desired response. “We’re trying to get people comfortable with calling, documenting and getting that paper trail.”

Crisis calls also have increased, as well as callers seeking counseling.

This same increasing awareness about the challenges victims are facing prompted the introduction of Senate Bill 174, also known as the Louisiana Violence Against Women Act.The group, along with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, are pushing the bill, which would provide housing protections for victims of domestic violence.

“Housing stability remains one of the biggest challenges for victims who are seeking independence from abusers,” said Monika Gerhart-Hambrick, policy director for the Fair Housing Action Center. “Yet, current law holds victims, not perpetrators, accountable for crimes.”

If passed, the bill would ensure victims are not evicted solely because they are victims of crime, Gerhart-Hambrick said. It would prohibit refusing housing because of being a victim, such as being denied housing because the applicant’s last address was a shelter; not lose housing because a crime occurred in the residence through domestic violence; create a clear process for landlords to evict abusers and create a process for the landlord to help protect the victim with no assistance to a perpetrator.

“We’ve also had clients who lost their housing after the abuser was arrested and sent to jail,” she said.

An emerging trend of women and children being evicted from rentals in Orleans and Jefferson parishes drew attention to the need for added protections, she said.

It’s a trend that Rainey expects to see in St. Charles Parish, too.

“It’s viewed as something that happens so I think the more this bill goes public, the more you’re going to see this problem,” she said.

Gerhart-Hambrick said areas of the state with more rentals have higher eviction rates.

Although a case of this type has not yet been reported in the parish, she said about a fifth of the parish’s homes are rentals, particularly in towns with above the parishwide average for rentals like Norco, Luling, St. Rose and Destrehan.

According to Gerhart-Hambrick, “Speaking for the Fair Housing Center, no one should lose their home because they are a victim of a crime. The lack of housing stability has a ripple effect on a family’s economy.”

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