Louisiana doesn’t allocate enough money to domestic violence services, audit finds

Louisiana doesn’t allocate enough money to domestic violence services, audit finds

By: - December 23, 2021 3:35 pm
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Louisiana isn’t able to provide services to all the domestic violence victims that seek them and five state laws meant to combat domestic violence aren’t consistently enforced, according to a report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor released this week.

The state turned down an average of 2,659 requests for shelter from domestic violence victims annually from 2015 through 2020. There are only 386 domestic violence shelter beds across 16 facilities in the state. In 2020, those shelters took in 2,212 individuals.

Central Louisiana has no domestic violence shelter at all, according to the audit, though its largest parish, Rapides, issued 849 protective orders last year. That was the 10th highest number of protective orders issued in any Louisiana parish in 2020. Louisiana also lost a shelter in 2017, when a facility in New Iberia closed.

The state struggles overall with domestic violence. In 2017, Louisiana had the second-highest rate of female homicide in the country behind Alaska. In 2018, it had the fifth-highest rate. The bulk of women murdered in both years – around 60 percent – were killed by intimate partners, according to the audit.  

Yet Louisiana spends less money than many other states on preventing domestic violence. Most of the public funding spent on domestic violence in Louisiana – 90 percent of the money – comes from the federal government. Just 10 percent comes from the state.

In total, the federal and state spending on domestic violence came to $15.3 million during the last budget cycle. The state has not made moves toward increasing funding for domestic violence services, despite experiencing large surpluses over the last few years.

When the state was flush with cash this year, the Louisiana Legislature allocated $15 million for Louisiana Capitol technology upgrades and $4.5 million to movie theater owners for COVID-19 economic recovery efforts. Lawmakers also spent $85 million on their own pet projects – giving money to recreation centers, sports complexes, local YMCAs, social clubs and American Legion halls – that aren’t typically funded by the state.

No state “general fund” money – the most flexible type of state funding – goes toward services for domestic violence victims currently, according to the audit. The state funding available comes from the justice reinvestment initiative – money saved when Louisiana decreases its prison population – and legal fees attached to marriage licenses, divorces and parental rights.

Meanwhile, domestic violence service providers told the auditor they struggle to keep their staff because they can’t pay them a competitive wage. Two federal grants used to provide services – totaling $6 million annually – didn’t increase from 2011 to 2020. 

The federal funding also isn’t flexible, which makes it difficult to use. For example, two of the larger federal grants cannot be used to build new shelter facilities. There are strict limits on how much can be spent on administrative costs, which makes it difficult to fund executive director positions at Louisiana shelters.

Other states put more state revenue toward domestic violence programming. Georgia puts state funds toward the salaries for shelter’s executive directors as well as a mortgage assistance program that helps with victims’ housing needs, according to the audit.

Outside of boosting financial support, the auditor recommended the state expand mandated training on domestic violence to prosecutors and judges. Currently, only law enforcement officers are required to go through classes on domestic violence.

The Louisiana District Attorneys Association said, in a letter to the auditor, that legally required domestic violence training is not necessary for prosecutors, since many already go through similar training offered through the association.

The auditor also suggested more regulation and oversight of the domestic violence intervention programs, which judges often require perpetrators of domestic violence to take. The state has no minimum standards for such programs currently, and in 2012, the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence found that nearly half of the state’s programs were using treatment methods considered inappropriate by domestic violence experts. But Louisiana might be struggling with domestic violence because officials aren’t complying with state domestic laws that have already been passed.

Here’s a look at the domestic violence laws the auditor found aren’t enforced statewide:

Sheriffs must provide proof that a protective order was served (2018) 

Lawmakers passed a law in 2018 that required sheriffs’ offices to provide “proof of service” to the Supreme Court that a protective order has been served to an alleged perpetrator of violence.

In other words, someone from the sheriff’s office is now legally required to provide evidence that an alleged domestic violence abuser has been told by a sheriff’s officer that he or she cannot have contact with an alleged victim. The sheriff’s office has to enter this information into the Louisiana Protective Order Registry run by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Advocates and victims said the law is necessary because law enforcement has been unable to enforce protective orders when it could not provide evidence that the alleged abuser had been notified of the order. The Legislature passed the law, sponsored by Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, unanimously.

But the Louisiana Supreme Court said some sheriffs’ offices still aren’t submitting “proof of service” for protective orders to the statewide database. The court has sent sheriffs who aren’t complying reminders that they need to do so, according to the auditor.

The Louisiana Sheriffs Association is also addressing the “paperwork” issue. In some cases, sheriffs have been returning that documentation to the clerk of court and not submitting them to the Louisiana Protective Order Registry, wrote Mike Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, in a letter to the auditor. He said the association has scheduled additional training with the Supreme Court to assist with the problem. 

Court clerks need to inform law enforcement of protective orders within two days (2014)

In 2014, legislators made a number of changes to state law aimed at speeding up the notification of protective orders to both the Supreme Court and law enforcement, which is responsible for informing the alleged perpetrator about the order.

The law, sponsored by former state lawmaker and current New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno, requires local clerks of court to send copies of any protective orders to the chief law enforcement officer of the parish where the alleged victim resides.

Under that law, the copy of the protective order must be sent by fax or electronic means, rather than mail, to speed up the notification process. It needs to arrive no later than the end of the business day after the protective order has been filed with the court clerk. 

These changes were supposed to ensure that people who are the subject of the order – such as domestic abusers – are notified of their new restrictions in a timely manner. But the auditor talked to one sheriff’s office who said it still struggles to serve temporary restraining orders because it often only gets the paperwork after the restraining order – which can last up to 21 days –  has expired.

People convicted of domestic violence or under a protective order can’t have firearms (2018)

Legislators approved a law in 2018 that requires people who are prohibited from having firearms due to a domestic violence conviction or a protective order to turn their weapons into the local sheriff within 48 hours. Former state senator and incoming New Orleans City Councilman J.P. Morrell, a Democrat, sponsored the legislation. 

Under the law, sheriffs oversee three different processes for transferring these weapons. The weapons can go to a third party for holding. The sheriff can put the firearms in a storage facility owned by the sheriff or the sheriff can also arrange for the sale of the firearm. 

The auditor found that several sheriffs don’t have policies and procedures in place for handling the firearms transfers, even though state law required the sheriffs to do so by the beginning of 2019.

The Louisiana Sheriffs Association said it believes sheriffs are safely overseeing firearms transfers across the state, but it has sent a note to sheriffs’ offices to urge them to have written policy in place for such transfers in order to be in compliance with the law.

A state commission needs to develop domestic violence training for officers (2018)

The Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement never created a new domestic violence awareness training program for law enforcement officers that it was required to develop under a 2018 state law.

The commission created some domestic violence materials for law enforcement classes, but those materials don’t meet all the requirements laid out by the 2018 law, sponsored by state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

For example, the current materials don’t address why strangulation might be important in a domestic violence dispute or communication with domestic violence victims, which is legally required, according to the auditor.

The commission told the auditor that the training had not been developed because the Louisiana Legislature never gave them funding to do so. It’s not clear why existing funding couldn’t be used for this purpose.

The auditor said that the commission received over $90,000 in federal grants specifically for domestic violence training from 2016 to 2019. The new training development was expected to cost $28,000.

The Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement told the auditor in a letter that it is now using “other sources for funding” to complete the new training program.

Schools need to offer instruction on dating violence in middle and high school (2010)

The auditor found that not all public schools were educating students in grades 7 to 12 about dating violence, as they are required to do under 2010 and 2014 state laws.

The law also requires employees who are around middle and high school students to go through training on dating violence, which not all school systems are doing.

School systems told the auditor they cannot offer the programming because they were never given funding to do so. Some school leaders contacted by the auditor also weren’t aware they were legally required to offer dating violence programming, and have now made plans to do so.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.