“Everyone has a silent storm within… the journey of healing starts with the first step.”
- Dr. Patricia Ann Davenport, Executive Director & Co-Founder of Our House, Inc.
October 1 marked the beginning of National Domestic Violence Awareness month. Still, for one domestic violence support organization in Mississippi, every day of the year is a new opportunity to shine a light on this very serious problem that disproportionately affects people of color.
Our House Incorporated is a domestic violence support organization based in Greenville, Mississippi, dedicated to eliminating domestic violence and sexual violence through intervention, prevention, prosecution, victim protection, and sustainable restoration in rural communities.
For the past 35 years, Dr. Patricia Ann Davenport has been involved in the domestic violence movement, spending the last 26 years as executive director of Our House, Inc. Our House provides services to all survivors of interpersonal violence, and addresses domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, and dating violence within the African American community. Dr. Davenport, and Our House's Healthy Relationship Director, Felecia Thomas, took some time to speak with staff about how their organization approaches the unique needs of this community and the ways advocates and law enforcement can better support survivors of color.
How is your environment set up to reflect culturally diverse trauma-informed care?
Dr. Patricia Davenport: It's important to ensure that those coming in for assistance should never feel intimidated – they should actually feel empowered. Something as simple as having two chairs and allowing someone to choose their chair is empowering.
Say a victim visits the Department of Mental Health, and the pictures on the walls do not accurately reflect the culture of the community they are from. It can be intimidating to a victim to ask someone from a different culture for help rather than someone they identify with, someone who may have experienced something similar.
When you come into our facility, everything is neutral. You see cultural posters, displays of historically powerful African Americans, etc. We consider the entire environment. Are there tissues available? Can two people have a private conversation? Does the language on intake forms accurately represent the community we serve? Small details in every environment assist in culturally specific trauma-informed care.
How can an advocate provide support for a victim of domestic violence?
Felecia Thomas: Advocates can best support victims by getting to know and truly understand who they are – seeing them as a person and not just as a victim. They need to clearly understand where this person is coming from and the type of issues they face. When talking about African Americans, we need to understand the stereotypes and the culture that they represent. This is crucial when working with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It is also essential to understand the dynamics of domestic violence – digging deep and understanding the background – learning as much as possible about each individual survivor and being familiar with the resources available in their community.
How can law enforcement provide support for a victim of domestic violence?
Dr. Patricia Davenport: Officers need specialized training in domestic violence – the dynamics, the traumatization, the resources available, and current laws – to provide support to a victim. Training should include working with victims that are also dealing with substance abuse.
When providing support to people of color, law enforcement can take two different approaches, often dependent upon whether the victim is in an urban area or a rural area. When working in a rural area, which is predominantly our service area, it's important to remember that everybody knows everybody. The law enforcement officer needs to distance themselves as much as possible from the personal aspects of the situation to avoid potential personal biases. Our particular service area is 87% African American, so we deal with a lot of cases involving people of color. The historical assumption is that black folks are more involved in domestic violence than white people is actually false. It just gets reported more, because the percentage of African Americans in our population is higher in this area. But race aside, I think the traumatization is the same for anyone victimized by domestic violence.
Felecia Thomas: Being on the front lines speaking with law enforcement and victims of domestic violence, I hear a lot that officers are easily burned out. When officers report to a domestic violence scene involving the same individuals multiple times, many begin to wonder if the victim actually likes some aspect of the violence. Law enforcement can start to feel ineffective, that there's little they can do. I think it is incredibly important that officers have a good understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence, recognizing that it may take many attempts for a victim to leave a dangerous situation before successfully doing so. No matter how many times law enforcement visits a scene, they must handle the case as though it is the first time. Policies and guidelines must exist within law enforcement to best support these victims.
Victim sensitivity is also critical in handling cases of domestic violence. Some wonderful law enforcement officers are out there doing extremely good jobs but are easily discouraged. In this area, officer turnover is high. Because of this, we have a lot of young officers reporting to scenes that are not very familiar with domestic violence – they are learning as they go.
We must keep in mind what is happening nationwide with the relationship between law enforcement and the African American community. Officers need to understand that someone may be reluctant to report abuse because they are worried about how law enforcement will handle their partner if arrested.
What are the challenges with funding and recognizing communities of color as underserved communities?
Dr. Patricia Davenport: Funding is generally political, so it can sometimes be more about who knows who. People of color generally receive funding because it's necessary to fulfill an obligation on the federal level. As a result of this, they're not receiving funding based on need.
In the past, higher levels of monetary funding were far greater – we now receive higher levels of in-kind donations. Foundation funding often prioritizes urban areas where victim numbers are higher. Rural areas need just as much funding per victim as urban areas, but it can be very difficult to obtain.
As a result of COVID-19, there have been severe cuts in funding to support survivors. Recently, in Mississippi, funding for the Victim Office of Crime Assistance suffered a major cut to resources. Previously there were two child advocacy centers to conduct forensic exams, and one is now closed. If the District Attorney's office loses funding to have a Victim Assistance Coordinator, there will be no one to make the call informing a victim that a perpetrator has been released from custody. Cutting funding cuts critical services, which poses a real danger to victims.
Appriss Insights thanks Dr. Davenport and Ms. Thomas for taking the time to lend their voices to the urgency and challenges of supporting domestic violence survivors of color. To learn more about the various programs and services that Our House Inc. offers to support all survivors of domestic violence, visit their website at www.ourhousevoices.com.