The New Orleans Police Department received 16,000 calls about domestic violence last year.
In an office across from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Special Victims Unit detectives investigate those calls from the Family Justice Center, the nonprofit domestic abuse headquarters for the city. Each call is a chance to get victims out of dangerous situations and into services that can save their lives.
Now, law enforcement can refer domestic violence victims to one more service within the FJC’s two-story, sprawling offices: health care at an on-site clinic staffed by a physician and forensic nurse.
“The one piece missing was the medical piece,” said Mary Claire Landry, the executive director of the center, which serves around 3,000 adults and children yearly.
Encouraging victims to seek health care is a crucial step in a domestic violence investigation — not just for the victims’ safety, but also to document injuries for use in a legal setting.
But the idea of walking into an emergency room for a forensic exam, with an average wait time of up to eight hours in some New Orleans hospitals, is daunting.
The new clinic, which opened in July with the help of grants and a $25,000 donation from the United Way of Southeast Louisiana’s Women United, is part of the center’s forensic program, which began in 2018 as an initiative to collect evidence from domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking victims.
The Family Justice Center is the only domestic violence service provider in Louisiana with a clinic on site and “one of the few that combine primary health care, behavioral health and forensic care in the country,” said Landry.
Once in the clinic, patients can receive a forensic exam with photographs documenting abuse that are filed away for police use. A special camera can look inside the throat and larynx to capture images of injuries that may not be apparent from the outside.
Statistics show that choking is an act of violence that indicates a victim is in danger. “I call it the last warning shot,” said Gael Strack, a former prosecutor and CEO of Alliance for Hope International, which FJC is modeled after. Once a person is choked, his or her chances of dying from domestic violence go up 750%, said Strack, referencing a 2008 study published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine.
Strangulation is one of the most lethal forms of domestic violence, causing unconsciousness in seconds and death in minutes. It can lead to long-term injuries like traumatic brain injury, problems swallowing and hearing, miscarriage and PTSD. About half the time, physical symptoms are not visible.
The clinic, consisting of four exam rooms, a reception area and an office space, joins a number of services at FJC, which operates out of the U.S. Post Office annex tower at 701 Loyola Avenue. The center was founded in 2007 with a $3 million-dollar federal grant and is a public-private partnership between many agencies.
Whether a victim needs transportation, legal services, counseling, temporary or emergency housing or simply a place to use a computer without their abuser’s knowledge, FJC connects them to an on-site service. Childcare is offered while parents receive services and counseling is available for kids 7 and up.
On-site partners include NOPD, the District Attorney’s office, Louisiana Bar Foundation, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services and the Health Department’s Blueprint for Safety.
And while services in the city have continued to expand since 2007, the domestic violence problem continues to grow. Louisiana ranks No. 2 among states for its rate of women killed by men. One in four women in Louisiana will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. This is the sixth consecutive year that Louisiana’s homicide victimization rate has increased, according to a 2019 report from the Violence Policy Center.
A statement from Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, another FJC partner, pointed to insufficient funds for victims.
“Our state’s funding for domestic violence victim services is woefully inadequate, and in many communities criminal justice practices still fail to hold abusers accountable before a homicide occurs,” said Mariah Wineski, executive director.