Resources sought to fight domestic abuse

Law enforcement officials at a rally Monday said the fight against domestic abuse won’t be effective until more victims break their silence so their abusers can be brought to justice and until more resources are devoted to the issue.

But the road to justice is not always straight and narrow — and the story Lechana Rankins, 39, of Baton Rouge, tells may not be all that unusual.

One October night in 1996, she said, an abusive partner who already hurt her twice attacked her again, so she grabbed a knife and stabbed him.

She cannot remember if he was arrested, but she remembers all too vividly when police handcuffed her and threw her in the back of a police car, arresting her on attempted murder. Her charge later was downgraded to aggravated second-degree battery, but she still received three years’ probation and had to pay her batterer restitution and his doctor’s bills.

“I guess they just looked at the fact that I stabbed him,” she said. “They didn’t look at the bruises on me.”

Rankins, who now works with other abuse victims, on Monday attended the Stop the Slaughter rally sponsored by the Iris Domestic Violence Center in Baton Rouge, although she was not a featured speaker.

But there were testimonials from other victims, warnings to abusers from law enforcement and the overall message that victims do not have to bear their burden alone. Speakers also reminded the public to stop asking why victims refuse to leave their abusers and begin asking why abusers attack their victims.

The event was held on the seventh anniversary of the death of Yarnell Gage, who was killed in Pointe Coupee Parish by an abusive boyfriend.

“I want to use her death as an example as to what could happen if you stay in these abusive relationships,” her mother, Theolonious Gage, said in an interview before the event.

Every year, Gage has sponsored a candlelight memorial on June 9 to honor her daughter and tell her daughter’s story in Pointe Coupee, but she worked with Iris to bring the event to Baton Rouge this year.

“I want each and every one of you to be as outraged as I am,” Beth Meeks, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said to about 100 men, women and children standing at the North Boulevard Town Square on Monday afternoon at the memorial and rally.

“We can’t afford to lose this fight anymore,” she said.

The event featured nearly a dozen speakers, including East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie and 19th Judicial District Court Judge Don Johnson, who is working to create a domestic violence court in Baton Rouge.

Johnson said he wants government to take a larger role in the issue instead of relying so heavily on nonprofit groups with limited resources.

“We need to fund a domestic violence court, we need to fund domestic violence training for judges and we need to fund a domestic violence center,” Johnson said.

In an interview after the event, Johnson said he hopes to present his fellow criminal court judges in about 90 days with a pilot proposal for the domestic violence court, followed by a presentation to the rest of the judges.

He is working with the District Attorney’s Office and organizations like Iris and the Coalition Against Domestic Violence to build the framework for how the court would operate, and also visiting and studying other domestic violence courts in the state.

The statistics the coalition compiled are sobering. From 2010-2012, there were 174 domestic violence homicides in Louisiana. Of those, 74 percent involved guns and 37 percent involved abusers who had prior domestic violence arrests.

In East Baton Rouge, Moore said, about 30 to 40 percent of the cases his office has handled has over the past six years have involved domestic violence, while Dabadie said his officers made more than 300 arrests from Jan. 1 to June 5 in domestic violence cases.

“That’s in half a year,” the Baton Rouge police chief said. “That’s way too many.”