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Bad economy spurs rise in domestic violence

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

As the economy has declined, Clayton County Police and social service agencies say they have seen a steady rise in the number of domestic violence incidents.

On Thursday, Police Chief Jeff Turner and representatives of 11, local, civic organizations met to re-establish the Clayton County Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The meeting was held at the Clayton County Community Services Authority building, located at 1000 Main St., in Forest Park.

Deborah Minter, program developer for the community services authority, said the purpose of the meeting was to bring organizations to the table to share resources and address gaps in services.

"We would like to team with the people who are on the frontline fighting this war," said Minter. "It is a war, because we lose people every year. It's going to take a lot of ongoing effort to impact societal views on domestic violence."

Attendees discussed factors contributing to domestic violence in the county, including increased economic strain on families, decreased government funding to non-profit organizations, a lack of local, domestic-violence shelters, a lack of public education about domestic violence, a lack of prosecutors, who focus specifically on domestic violence cases, a lack of coordination between existing aid agencies, and language barriers between the police and domestic violence victims.

Taylor Brand, interim director of Rainbow House, a local shelter for displaced and runaway children, said that trouble in the home often spills into the rest of the community. "A lot of the problems we have in society come from family violence," said Brand. "If we had a healthy family life, we wouldn't have a lot of these other problems."

Keisha Christopher, a case manager for Securus House, a shelter for battered women, said the rise in domestic violence has strained her agency's ability to help domestic violence victims.

"We are the only domestic violence shelter in the county," said Christopher. "We have 21 beds and we stay full. The economy isn't helping."

Police Chief Turner said the nation's economic crisis is having an impact on domestic violence. "They internalize that, and they bring it home."

Turner said, while the county has seen a rise in domestic violence, many people are ignoring it when they see it. He recalled a domestic violence case from three years ago:

"A person, who killed his girlfriend, began shooting at the [police] station, and we had to shoot and kill him in the parking lot," said Turner. "When we talked to neighbors, they said they saw him dragging her by the hair the night before. They should have called the day before.

"People have to come forward," said Turner. "We can no longer turn our heads from domestic violence or crime in general."

Norma de Lagarza, a representative with Atlanta Legal Aid, said another problem the county faces is the growing need for bilingual investigators in domestic violence incidents. "In a lot of homes, the male is the only one who speaks English, and he tells his version of the story," said de Lagarza. "The woman is often losing."

De Lagarza added that bilingual officers are needed, especially in the Hispanic community, to overcome a deep, cultural distrust of the police.

Michelle Dawkins, program manager of the Clark Atlanta University Environmental Justice Resource Center, said the area also needs to be prepared for a wave of returning soldiers from the war in Iraq, who may be dealing with domestic issues. She said the county doesn't have the necessary support structure in place.

"If we are not ready to deal with what we have now, we are not going to be anywhere near ready when all of these men and women come back," said Dawkins. "I have been in meetings in [Washington] D.C., and they are scared. Our mental health resources are not intact."

The group agreed to meet regularly, work on creating a public service announcement campaign in the county, combine resources, and brainstorm ways to promote domestic violence programs to the corporate world, in the wake of scarce government funding.

"We can't just have a one-month focus," said Minter. "We have to put it out there, because violence isn't going away."

"There are a lot of people in the county who are in abusive relationships and don't know it," said Turner. "I think education is a big part of any initiative. If the community doesn't know the signs of domestic abuse, then we are just spinning our wheels."