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Our City, Our Problem: Domestic Violence

4 weeks 1 day 15 hours ago Wednesday, June 19 2024 Jun 19, 2024 June 19, 2024 9:02 PM June 19, 2024 in News
Source: WBRZ

Domestic violence touches nearly every corner of Louisiana, including the Capital Region. Victims, non-profit organizations, and law enforcement say it is a constant battle for people’s lives.

In this installment of the Our City, Our Problem series, the WBRZ Investigative Unit examines the root causes of domestic abuse, shares stories from victims, explores how victims and their families fight for justice, and takes you inside a domestic violence shelter to learn the needs of victims and shelter operators.

WBRZ has reported on several domestic violence cases. Experts ranging from domestic violence shelter operators, law enforcement, victims, and prosecutors say domestic violence often starts with subtle warning signs, but it can ultimately lead to much worse.

IDENTIFYING THE ISSUE
According to the Baton Rouge Police Department, there were 13 domestic violence homicides in 2023, and there were already three as of April 2024. For the officers and prosecutors working on these cases, legal remedies like protective orders and ankle monitoring do not guarantee a victim's safety.

BRPD Capt. Dave Mays is the department's Investigative Support Unit Commander and has worked on domestic violence crimes for decades. He says it starts with subtle signs.

“The warning signs are there, the red flags are there, but a lot of times they might not know that it's leading to more severe consequences based on those actions,” Mays said.

BRPD Victim Assistance Coordinator Detective Beulah Bowman says domestic violence can happen to anyone.

”It doesn't discriminate. You see male, you see female, you see teens, you see elderly, you see rich, you see middle class," Bowman said.

In 2023, BRPD made 932 domestic violence arrests.

“I've seen one where it initially started off as the female being the victim,” Bowman said. “We went through, made an arrest with him, but later he got out and then she victimized him, so we ended up having to arrest her."

There are safeguards like protective orders and ankle monitors, but that does not mean offenders will follow the rules.

According to East and West Feliciana District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla, keeping victims safe from their abusers is a top concern.

“These people on ankle monitors, they're very, very dangerous individuals. They're strapping something to their leg, [the companies] don't know where they are and what they're doing,” D’Aquilla said.

In September 2021, 70-year-old Peggy Rayburn was killed by her estranged husband, 63-year-old Marshall Rayburn, who wrapped his court-ordered ankle monitor in aluminum foil to avoid detection. The ankle monitoring company failed to notify anyone.

In 2022, a West Feliciana Parish grand jury indicted two ankle-monitoring companies for negligent homicide.

The case is being appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

“We feel like the monitoring companies had a duty or a standard of care they had to operate under to notify somebody—the victim, the sheriff, the court—if there's a violation of a monitoring agreement,” explained D’Aquilla.

Both prosecutors and officers indicate that identifying red flags before they escalate is key to saving victims’ lives.

“I also try to inform them the importance of following through with the process, especially if it's a second time or if it occurred multiple times,” Bowman said. “What we're trying to avoid or prevent is death, because it could lead to that."

FINDING THE COURAGE TO LEAVE
For many victims leaving and getting help is easier said than done. Ignoring red flags, wanting to protect the children, or feeling helpless and alone are just some of the reasons someone might stay in an abusive relationship. That was the situation for Sandra Hally, whose story of abuse made headlines.

"I never thought I would be in something like this but I thank God I survived so I can tell the story"

Sandra Hally lived with her abuser for nearly 15 years, and while not all of those years were bad, by the time it ended, she was left with lifelong physical and mental scars.

Her story made news when he was arrested in 2019. Moses Evans—a justice of the peace in Baton Rouge—was charged with several counts of domestic abuse battery and cruelty to juveniles

But years before her pain became headlines, Sandra was in a happy relationship.

"He was prince charming. He did everything. He was so nice and I said, "This seems like this is a good guy'," she said.

The first few years of their relationship weren't physically violent, however looking back, Sandra realizes she was being controlled in another way.

"Like brainwashing. It was like grooming somebody. In their own special way."

Evans began to control every aspect of her life—from what she ate, who she spoke to and what she wore.

"I make a joke. I say I looked like 'Kunta Kinte.' My hair was cut off like a little boy. I wore glasses, had spots on my face. Anyone who knew me before would be like 'What is wrong with her?'"

The once vibrant, extroverted hairdresser shriveled. She was eventually let go from the salon where she worked.

"They can see the change. I wouldn't talk to my customers," Sandra said.

Then one day, at a wedding, Sandra was hugging someone goodbye.

"He didn't like that. He said I was his...and I didn't need to hug on no other man and all this kind of stuff and pulled my hair out. I remember I had some hair at the time."

It never got better.

Over the next few years, Evans became increasingly violent.

"I didn't know at the time that my nose got fractured, both my arms fractured. Got these crooked fingers that are not going to go straight, cauliflower ear, cuts on my lip, cuts on my eyebrow, burn on my arm."

Her kids were also victims. They were sometimes ordered by Evans to hurt their mother and other times recipients of his anger themselves.

"My children...I tell them something had to be wrong with me to let all that go down."

Sandra says she tried to leave many times.

"It seemed like within the last year—I ran away. I ran away and ended up coming back because my children were there."

The last straw came during one of those attempts. She says Evans tried to stop her and pinned her down on a scalding hot metal trailer.

"I was burning. I was on my back and [said] 'I'm burning! I'm burning.' He said 'You're gone burn more in hell that you are on this trailer' and he was punching me and I am blocking."

That was it. Sandra began formulating a plan to leave, receiving help from Evans' mother.

She found herself in the hospital receiving treatment for years of injuries. Eventually, when Evans was arrested, she got her kids out as well. She says she got back on her feet with the help of Iris Domestic Violence Center

"They signed me up with everything with the lawyers. Everything. To get the restraining order. Everything. They still help me now."

It's now a resource she urges others to use.

"There are people that are out there that can help you. I know, I understand it seems like you are out there by yourself. Nobody understands you or doesn't want to get involved. Well, we got some people that want to get involved."

Evans pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence. He was released last year

MOVING FORWARD AFTER TRAGEDY
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three women and one in four men experience intimate partner violence. In 2023, 38 people were killed in Louisiana by a current or former romantic partner.

The families of victims in those cases often have little recourse when domestic violence turns to murder. Still, Lafayette residents Drake Vincent and his sister Mallory found some form of justice for their late mother, Katherine.

“We're all we really had growing up,” Mallory Vincent said. “It was only ever me, my mom and Drake."

“Honestly, she was like a Mama bear, she would do anything for us,” Drake said as he gushed about his mother.

Katherine had a lot of love to give, finding romance after divorce. In 2012, Katherine Mashburn married Eric Babineaux.

“We take it upon ourselves to call her Mashburn," Drake said. "For a woman to take a man's name is more of a privilege, so when you do something like that, you're not really awarded that privilege."

In Feb. 2023, Mashburn filed for divorce and Babineaux moved to New Orleans. Three months later, Katherine didn't show up for work. Drake thought she might still be at home.

“I started calling for a while," he said. "And then that's where I just found her."

Before the divorce was final, 53-year-old Eric Babineaux rented a car and drove to Katherine’s home in Broussard, Louisiana. He laid low on the property for hours in the dark of night before shooting Mashburn multiple times and killing himself.

“I'm more comfortable talking about the statistics, The matter of fact,” Mallory said. ”It's hard to talk about how I feel about it because that is my loss," she continued.

The attorney for Katherine's estate, Andrew Quackenboss, said because Mashburn's murderer committed suicide, the family had to find justice in a different way.

In court, Quackenboss cited a 2014 law that makes abusers liable for damages caused by domestic abuse even if the abuser was not criminally prosecuted.

"We were able to use this law that exists to send that message or to at least give them some type of feeling that it's not just compensation,” he explained.

In February 2024, 15th Judicial District Court Judge Royale Colbert awarded Katherine’s estate $216 million in exemplary and compensatory damages against Babineaux’s estate. Quackeboss coined it the 'financial death penalty.'

“He can't go and commit this crime, kill himself and then people who are there get to benefit from it,” Quackenboss said.

”Instead, the court said, we're going to send a message that says ‘No, no, no, no, nobody's going to benefit in your line’, so to speak, from these types of actions. And instead, we're going to set an example to let everybody know in the community that this type of conduct's not going to be tolerated,” he explained.

Despite the large settlement, the Vincents say what was taken from them can not be replaced.

“We could have gotten a trillion dollars. It doesn't matter. We would have traded anything for our mom, so the number was just the message,” Mallory said.

With the settlement behind them, Drake and Mallory explained that their grief fueled their advocacy.

“We're able to get people to actually start talking about this issue to where, like, it affected my mom throughout her entire life. She may not [have] even noticed,” Drake said.

“It shouldn't have to get to a death or such an extreme measure, you need to get help before,” Mallory said.

“Everybody needs to reevaluate their situations and think twice about it and look at themselves to see if they are in a type of relationship that needs help,” she finished.

FUNDING FOR SHELTERS AT RISK
Despite progressive outcomes like the Vincent's case, domestic violence programs and shelters in the state remain widely unfunded. Now, they are facing even more cuts after this legislative session.

Louisiana's 17 shelters rely heavily on private donations and federal dollars, which many feel is at risk.

House Bill 608 by Rep. Roger Wilder, R-Denham Springs, created the 'Women's Safety and Protection Act' which requires bathrooms and changing rooms in public facilities to be designated male and female. 

"This bill's goal is to put women first by affording them confidence in their privacy and safety in their female-only use areas," Wilder said.

However, the wording in the bill could have some major unintended consequences according to the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence director Mariah Wineski. 

"There are federal regulations that require that domestic violence shelters serve victims of domestic violence in accordance with their gender identity and the bill specifically requires that spaces be established and designated based on its definition of biological sex. So we are concerned about that distinction and the ability of the shelters to maintain compliance with their federal regulations," Wineski said.

Domestic violence shelters are included in the bill, and despite lengthy testimony from advocates, legislators have refused to remove them.

Attorney General Liz Murill has said she would sue the United States government if that money is pulled, but Wineski says it's too risky.

"Shelters across the state—their funding situation is so precarious that they are not in a position to play chicken with the federal government over their money," Wineski said.

The millions in federal funding wouldn't be as crucial if Louisiana put any state dollars toward shelters, which historically Louisiana has not.

In 2021, a legislative auditor found that domestic violence programs in the state were severely underfunded

"What the legislative auditor actually found in their report was that an average of more than 2,500 requests per year for shelter went unmet. So that's 2,500 times that a survivor of domestic violence was calling a shelter needing a place to go and couldn't get one because the beds were full," Wineski said.

That changed last year when Governor John Bel Edwards included $7 million in the budget for domestic violence programs. According to Wineski, with that money, they opened five new shelters, expanded six existing shelters, and opened 11 new outreach offices. Outreach offices are the non-residential places where survivors can receive counseling, safety planning, and help to apply for a restraining order.

That money was cut for this year.

"Those services are what is at risk. So all of that just got off the ground and would have to shut down."

For Wineski, losing state funding and being at risk of having vital federal funds pulled is a slap in the face for domestic violence survivors and the programs that help them.

"It certainly feels like it is not a priority for our state."

HB 608 passed through the legislature with a few minor changes in response to the pushback and was signed by Governor Jeff Landry.

However, Wineski and other advocates fear that it may still put them in violation of federal statutes.

Murrill says she will ensure shelters have some sort of funding if it is pulled.

COMMUNITY STEPS IN TO FILL GAPS LEFT BY STATE
The lack of funding has extensive impacts on actual shelters and programs. Luckily, the network of community resources available is vast, often working together to help victims in any way they can.

At the Iris Shelter in Baton Rouge, director Pattie Freeman was able to build a new wing for transitional housing and begin work on a children's center. But the state money that funded it was cut this year, and the future of those projects is uncertain.

"That looks like a locked door on a transitional wing. That looks like a locked door on a children's wing that we just developed and are about to finish," Freeman said.

While Freeman says they usually scrape by on donations, they still can't fund certain things.

"I had to prepare my staff when that money was taken because it funded specific positions that weren't in place before. There may be cuts in staffing. There may be layoffs if this money isn't continued."

Iris is one of 17 shelters statewide. It services eight parishes.

"That alone there [is] over 850,000 persons, so if you consider those numbers where 1 in 5 women are a victim—that number is enormous and this shelter alone serves that number."

Freeman says recently it has been steadily at capacity.

"Right now, it's all but two rooms full and it's been one to two rooms from full for the last several months"

However, due to the dangerous nature of their work, Freeman says they will never turn someone away.

"Could you imagine the horror if we said, 'No we're full,' and so they don't go anywhere else and something horrific happens to them?"

While the future of domestic violence shelters in the state depends on legislators, other advocacy groups like the Butterfly Society are stepping up.

"Everybody plays a part in this. We cannot do this work alone and I'll put it this way. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle and we know when it's time to bring those pieces together to make it happen for a victim, survivor, or family," founder Twanna Harris said.

Harris is a domestic violence survivor herself. She started the Butterfly Society to help people in similar situations.

"Domestic violence—it doesn't wear a certain mask. It doesn't come from a certain side of town. It can happen to anyone at any given moment."

Often when Iris is stretched thin, they will reach out to her.

"We pull our dollars together sometimes. We put our minds together sometimes and we make it happen."

The program, which relies on funding from donors and a grant from Southern University, provides whatever someone may need to leave their situation.

"We're a catalyst for victims and families who are affected by domestic violence. We provide a whole host of resources from temporary lodging, rental assistance, utility assistance, and the necessities that someone would need leaving home. We even assist with funeral expenses as well as medical expenses. We've paid car notes. We've bought plane tickets, bus passes."

Like Sandra Hally, Twanna knows how tough it is to ask for help.

"That's the hardest thing to have to do sometimes is call a shelter or call the Butterfly Society or call Iris, or Family Services of Greater Baton Rouge because the moment you make that call, you're acknowledging that something is wrong, and what's the next step?"

The Butterfly Society tries to make that next step as easy as possible.

"We're in the trenches. We love meeting people where we are because where they are is where they are hurting. You can find us anywhere. In the barbershop, hair salon, neighborhood church, or even in someone's school."

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