By Leslie D. Rose
With heads bowed in prayer on the steps of the state capital on Aug. 14, fewer than 100 people joined together for Aleria’s Promise – a candlelight vigil with the plight of ending domestic violence in Louisiana, everywhere.
“Our goal is to journey and strive for a world where domestic violence is no more,” Rev. Demetria Jones-Smith said in closing her prayer.
Other speakers followed in the hour-long program, including state representatives, law enforcement, mayoral representation, domestic violence awareness agencies and District Attorney Hillar Moore.
The vigil was held by the Nu Gamma Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (AKA). Originally scheduled to be held on Aug. 1 to celebrate Louisiana’s new domestic violence laws – including immediate divorce for victims and strict firearm prohibition for offenders – the event was rained out. However it was ironically held on another monumental date in Louisiana. According to Hillar Moore, DA, it was also the first day in Baton Rouge courts that multiple lengthy hearings were held based on the new statutes passed.
“Now whenever a person is arrested for a domestic violence offense, that person can be held in jail within up to five days and a hearing can be set to make sure that the judge and everyone knows what’s happening and how can we best secure this victim so that this defendant does not get out and cause harm again,” Moore said. “And all of that happened today for the first time.”
Monstrous applause ensued, but it was indeed bittersweet for the event’s organizers as the vigil was put together in honor of Aleria Cyrus Reed, a sorority member slain by domestic violence earlier this year by her estranged husband who immediately after took his own life. The couple’s two young children were present at the time.
In reports by various local news outlets Cyrus Reed had reported her husband several times for domestic abuse and had even been quoted as saying she was fearful for her life as he had threatened to “destroy” her. She was also quoted as saying that she was most worried because Reed’s brother, unnamed, had murdered his girlfriend when an attempt was made to end that relationship.
And while Cyrus Reed’s case is a sad one, it is far from atypical in Louisiana, as the state is the nation’s leader in domestic violence cases. Even still Jacqueline Nash, attorney and chairwoman of the Aleria’s Promise Domestic Violence Initiative, said she didn’t realize how bad things were until it hit so close to home in claiming the life of her sorority sister.
“That made the issue of domestic violence and domestic violence murder personal to us [AKA’s],” Nash said. “When Aleria was murdered, it was personal, it was painful and it was in our face.”
Aside from the vigil, the initiative will host various events to address effects of domestic violence including education, legislative advocacy and victim and family support and assistance.
According to IRIS Domestic Violence Center in Baton Rouge, domestic violence is the single major cause of injury to women with a woman being battered in the United States every 12 seconds and 30-33% of women homicides being committed by the victims’ husbands and boyfriends.
Louisiana Coalition against Domestic Violence (LCADV) provides homicide tracking for the state and noted that from 2010 to 2012 there were 178 domestic homicides in Louisiana.
“Our record on domestic violence is abysmal,” said Beth Meeks, LCADV executive director. “We frequently have rates two and three times higher than the national average. In every measure of homicide indicators we are worse than everybody else.”
Meeks continued to say that her agency estimates that more than 100 children per year are orphaned by domestic homicide. The agency also noted that there were 2400 requests unmet by domestic violence agencies in Louisiana because the needs far exceed the means – there are also 45 parishes that have no access to that type of support at all.
“We did not have enough advocates, we did not enough beds, we could not get to where they were,” Meeks said. “We have a long way to go. We had a good year, but this is only the start. We simply cannot pretend to be a state that supports family values and stand by quietly while women are murdered at this rate in our nation.”
She went on to say that after the Aug. 1 legislation was passed she received phone calls from leaders across the nation in disbelief that a state with the strongest gun rights legislation in the nation had passed such protective ordinances that placed barriers on gun rights.
“Those legislators in that building said our mamas matter more than our guns today,” she said. “People could not believe that Louisiana was the state that drew the line in the sand and said we’re going to stop violent offenders from having these guns. Almost no state has been able to move legislation like this and if you would ask before that date, people would say Louisiana would be the last to do it.”
Meeks said the eyes of the nation are now on this state as Louisiana has become the blueprint for which other states seek to follow in regards to ending domestic violence. Thus she cautioned that the fight against domestic abuse is far from over simply with that legislation.
“To the women in the audience, no one is going to do this for us,” she said. “You’re going to solve this problem because you’re going to rise up and demand something better. That’s how every civil rights action that succeeded in our nation’s history has made it.”
“One death is too many,” she said.