Hattiesburg, Mississippi – On the first day of October, during the City’s annual proclamation for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker was joined by Municipal Court Judge Wes Curry, representatives from the Hattiesburg Police Department’s Domestic Violence Unit and several social service partners to announce the creation of the Domestic Violence Court.
This court, funded by a grant through the Mississippi State Department of Health’s Office Against Interpersonal Violence, will establish a dedicated court docket, with a prosecutor and domestic violence coordinator, to provide offenders with services and accountability. It will also provide victims/families with financial, health, counseling and other services needed to recover from the trauma of a domestic violence experience.
“For many years, agencies have worked somewhat independently of each other to tackle the growing issue of domestic violence in our community. This program will allow everyone to come to the table and provide a consistent and holistic approach to handling these cases with a focus on rehabilitation, recovery, safety and security,” said Barker. “During a month when our Domestic Violence Unit with Hattiesburg Police Department works tirelessly to bring awareness to this growing issue in our own community – I am very proud to announce a collaborative, evidence-based approach to making a difference in the lives of those affected by domestic violence.”
Key components of the court program include:
- A dedicated court docket.
- Dedicated personnel, through a part-time prosecutor and full-time domestic violence case coordinator.
- Creating a team-based model to work alongside HPD, HPD’s Victim Advocate and social service partners like The Domestic Abuse Family Shelter and Pinebelt Mental Healthcare Resources.
- Assistance for victims through court staff, including referrals and services provided by partner agencies, an increased focus on victim safety and security before, during and after court appearances.
- Probation monitoring, batterer intervention programming and referrals for services as needed for offenders.
- Offenders will also be assessed for mental illness and/or substance abused for additional court programming needs
- Training for court personnel through the Attorney General’s Office, the Domestic Abuse Family Shelter and Pine Belt Mental Healthcare Resources; and,
- An umbrella of standards and accountability established by the Domestic Violence Court planning team to include (but not limited to) judge, court administrator, office manager, victim advocate, prosecutor, domestic violence coordinator and representatives from service provider agencies.
“This program is very similar to our behavioral health and drug court programs, which allow for us to provide very specific and targeted interventions to batterers,” said Curry. “It also aids in providing necessary resources to victims with a focus on recovery, safety and security. These types of courts are very successful in areas similar in size and scope of Hattiesburg. I am proud of our team for looking at an innovative and collaborative solution, and I’m grateful that the Office Against Interpersonal Violence selected our application for funding.”
During 2020, Hattiesburg saw a surge of domestic violence cases – likely due to stress, joblessness, fear and stay-at-home orders during the pandemic. In total, there were 160 cases (a 20-25% increase over the year prior) with 19 repeat offenders and an additional 36 cases that were reduced in order so that offenders could be eligible for behavioral health/drug court programming.
For centuries, domestic violence was perceived as a private affair or personal matter within the home. In large, courts didn’t handle domestic violence cases because it wasn’t illegal.
In the 1990s, the system began to shift and legislation was established to tackle the complexities of domestic violence – this included mandatory arrest laws, an increase in funding for services for victims, the creation of special domestic violence prosecution and police units and a parallel movement within the state court systems – including specialty courts dedicated to handling domestic violence cases.
For many years, the Hattiesburg Police Department has handled domestic violence cases through its Domestic Violence Unit. This unit consists of detectives who are trained and well-educated in areas involving intimate relationship violence. It also works collaboratively with victim advocates to ensure that victims are safe from harm.
Police Chief Peggy Sealy believes that the highlight of the program is the collaboration between public, private and nonprofit service providers, “Tackling domestic violence can be very difficult. Our team is dedicated to providing support and solutions for those affected by domestic violence in our community, but our role only extends so far. This approach will help us collaborate, communicate and effectively serve the citizens of Hattiesburg in a more deliberate way.”
The grant funding received from OAIV totals $70,755.01, with a local match of $23,585.01. The total funding budget for the court program is $94,340.02, effective October 1, 2021, through September 30, 2022. If subsequent grant funding is not available in future years, court officials believe it will have the necessary funds to continue to operate out of its general fund.
The City of Hattiesburg, Hattiesburg Police Department and Municipal Court will continue to bring awareness to the issue of domestic violence in the community through a handful of events for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. They include:
- Saturday, October 2; 7 a.m.: Remember My Name 5K at Kamper Park
- Monday, October 18; 6:30 p.m.: Domestic Violence Awareness Vigil at Jackie Dole Sherrill Community Center
- Thursday, October 21; all day: Wear purple to show support for awareness, tagging any posts on social media with #PurpleThursday
- Tuesday, October 26; 6 p.m.: Ladies Self-Defense Course at Jackie Dole Sherrill Community Center