Sometimes it’s the small, ordinary tasks that can pose the toughest obstacles for people seeking to emerge from the danger of domestic violence — such as gathering documents that can allow them to rent a new apartment.
“The biggest thing I noticed is how frustrating it can be for a victim to navigate services,” said Stephanie Stockton, a rural advocate for Care Lodge Domestic Violence Shelter. The navigation of services can be especially difficult, she said, “in our rural communities where they are hard to come by, and where people don’t know what their resources actually are.”
Stockton began work as rural advocate for Care Lodge in October. It’s a position that, as Leslie Payne noted, was sorely needed. Payne, executive director of Care Lodge, described the need for rural advocacy as she sketched the vast swath of territory covered by Care Lodge. In all, the Care Lodge covers nine counties.
“That’s a lot of area,” she said. “That’s where our rural advocate can go.”
Payne said the rural advocate’s position is funded by state dollars designated for service providers who work directly with victims. Public or nonprofit organizations are eligible, she said.
The need for help
With recent incidents of domestic violence in the area, the presence of a resource may seem to many people to be particularly valuable.
Arian Thigpen, public awareness coordinator for the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she has counted, based on news reports, 27 homicides in the state so far this year that stemmed from “a domestic dispute between romantic or ex-romantic partners.” In 2016, she said, she counted 25 for the entire year.
Thigpen also pointed to a study from the Violence Policy Center, focusing on 2014 data, that illuminated the roles of guns in such homicides. “Nationwide, for homicides in which the weapon could be determined (1,458), more female homicides were committed with firearms (54 percent) than with any other weapon,” according to the report. It goes on to say that of “the homicides committed with firearms, 69 percent were committed with handguns.”
Thigpen said the most dangerous time for a victim was, generally, “when they decide to leave.” And that, Thigpen said, is where local organizations — such as the Care Lodge — play tremendously important roles.
“They can call their local program and work out a plan to keep themselves safe,” she said, noting that organizations such as the Care Lodge will operate confidentially and will be able to help craft a plan unique to the case at hand.
“It will be customized for each victim,” she said.
The presence of domestic violence can be fueled by drugs and by financial struggles, noted Barry Walker, executive director of Restoration House, a faith-based recovery program in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
“We give pastoral counseling to men and women enslaved by addiction,” Walker said. And often those addictions are accompanied by domestic violence.
“It is heartbreaking,” he said.
Walker said the Salvation Army has provided shelter, but he’s still seeking more space.
“We need some kind of safe house,” he said. “We need a quicker response (in finding shelter), too. Time is precious in this situation.”
Walker said people at the Restoration House also look to a victim’s relatives for places to stay.
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Walker stressed that alcohol and drugs — particularly methamphetamines and opiates — can create toxic combinations that fuel domestic violence. Walker said that sometimes the financial strain of purchasing the drugs, as well as the physical and mental effects, can exacerbate tension in a relationship.
According to statistics from the Office of the Mississippi Attorney General, the number of Domestic Abuse Protection Orders rose to 4,039 during the period of Aug. 16, 2016 to Aug. 16, 2017 compared with 2,778 during the period of Aug. 16, 2012 to Aug. 16, 2013. Paula Broome, chief of the bureau of victim assistance in the Attorney General’s office, attributed the rise in protection orders to greater awareness about how to create a protection order.
“We did extensive training with the courts,” she said.
The Office of the Mississippi Attorney General also reports 9,940 calls related to domestic violence received by law enforcement officers and entered into a statewide database during that same 2016-2017 period, compared with 10,862 during that period in 2012-2013.
Stockton worked at the MSU Riley Center as an event planner before she took over the rural advocate’s job.
It’s a job that “translated really well with this position,” explained Sara Smith, the community coordinator for Care Lodge, who sat down recently with Stockton to talk about Care Lodge's work.
“A lot of what (Stockton) did with the Riley Center is helpful (because) she knows people throughout the area,” Smith said.
Stockton and Smith stressed the importance of — among other things — helping people who have experienced domestic violence to navigate ordinary tasks they might be facing for the first time.
“We have an individual who was stuck in her situation because she didn’t have a driver’s license or a photo I.D., and she didn’t have a birth certificate,” Smith said.
The absence of those items, Smith explained, can create a stiff roadblock for people trying to make new starts.
“If you’re trying to rent a house, you need proof of I.D. in order to establish services in your name. In order to have an I.D. you need to have a birth certificate and a social security card,” Smith said.
Someone who’s moved around frequently, without having her own place, may be likely to lack those pieces of personal identification. The client that Stockton and Smith recalled, though, was able to receive help through Care Lodge, and so her story took a favorable turn.
“When we were able to get her identification, her state-issued I.D., she cried because she had never had one before,” Stockton said. “That’s something that most people take for granted every single day.”
But facilitating that sort of help, Stockton said, takes a network of cooperation — especially in the more rural regions. So, Stockton goes to “different public places where someone might be passing by,” such as libraries, churches, doctors’ offices and other sites.
“I’ve even got one, in one county, in a grocery store,” she said. “It’s (about) where you are most going to go, where you are going to see this information.”
‘I let them speak first…’
Stockton said that most of her time is spent talking with someone, one-on-one, as they’re striving to get help.
“Normally, I let them speak first,” she said. “I just ask them to tell me about their situation.”
Stockton and Smith noted the way losing the ability to use phones and other communication devices can pose particularly severe problems in rural areas.
“When you’re already out that far from your resources it’s that much more difficult to get the resources you need,” Stockton said. And so the sorts of contacts she makes in the local communities become even more crucial.
“That’s what delights me the most,” she said, “is having people be receptive when I come in — having people be receptive that there’s someone else there to help.”
That might take the form, she explained, of someone taking someone else aside after church, for instance, and letting the person know that some outside is available. Smith said the faith community is often vital in this endeavor.
“The faith community is (often) paramount in their life,” she said. “The lay people go to their ministers first and want guidance.”
Striving for acceptance
Smith said small communities can also, at least in some cases, create particular problems for people in LGBTQ communities.
“They’re having a struggle of getting resources, and with people believing them and supporting them,” Smith said. “They’re looking for the same thing everybody else is. They want to know that they’re believed and treated equally.”
Stockton noted that long-ingrained codes of family privacy can discourage people from seeking help. People may wonder, she said, why someone experiencing domestic violence in a small community does not ask for help.
“The response was, ‘It’s our private business and I didn’t put it out there in public,’” Stockton said. “They don’t want to put their information out there. They don’t want everybody in their small towns talking about it. They don’t want to go to church and have people whispering about what happened down the road because they saw the police show up. It’s a lot harder for them to make that call.”
Neshoba County Sheriff Tommy Waddell noted that problem, as well.
“Being a small community, everybody knows everybody,” he said. “Maybe there’s some embarrassment.”
But asking for help can also create relief.
Detective Krishonda Grady, domestic violence detective for the Meridian Police Department, described her procedure, speaking slowly in a voice that’s clearly accustomed to fostering a calming atmosphere.
“Usually, I initially meet with the victim after I review the report, and I would get an initial statement from them, and I would refer them to the Care Lodge or a protection order, and if they are ready to get out of that situation, refer them to the Care Lodge for shelter as well,” she said. “Through the process of building the case, I contact them and let them know when the suspect has been arrested and let them the court date, and I also follow up to make sure they obtained a protection order.”
Among the services offered by the Care Lodge, Grady said, is helping victims to file protection orders.
Grady noted that when she talks through the situation with a possible victim, some of the tension can fall away — even though formidable challenges loom. She said she refers people to services, the first of which is the Care Lodge.
“The Care Lodge is our go-to agency,” Grady said.