The “Underreported and Underpunished” series started with a simple question: Had the COVID-19 pandemic fueled a rise in intimate partner violence, and did it further isolate victims or cause more victims to seek help?
When trying to answer that question, I was surprised by the sheer lack of data we have on domestic violence crimes in Mississippi. Advocates and others confirmed this, telling stories of how they cobbled together newspaper reports to track and find details about individual domestic, or interpersonal, violence homicides.
Shelters collect their own court data, and the crime reporting system being used by most law enforcement agencies does not take into account things like the relationship between perpetrator and victim. Despite the introduction of a new system that would track those factors, very few law enforcement agencies are using it.
To further complicate the issue, domestic violence crimes are still sometimes being charged otherwise: simple assault, disturbing the peace and others that don’t tell the complete story of what happened — or the abuser’s propensity for future violence.
And, importantly, we remain one of five states in the nation that doesn’t conduct a domestic violence fatality review, or a review of deaths caused by domestic violence for the purpose of preventing future deaths.
The problem, as I saw it, is that before you can solve or fix an issue, you must understand it. I wondered how anyone was fixing anything in Mississippi, which consistently ranks in the top 20 states in the number of women killed by men, if we don’t have a good grasp on the subject.
I interviewed dozens of shelter directors, advocates and victims, in addition to attorneys, law enforcement officers, lawmakers, federal officials, and even national experts who shared practices that made a difference in other places around the country. I attended and continue to attend proceedings in municipal courtrooms, the courtrooms that handle the majority of domestic violence cases. I also requested data about felony domestic violence crimes from the courts that we are still analyzing.
The result is the ongoing series, which looks not only at laws and policies but tells the stories of real Mississippians who found themselves in an abusive relationship, in addition to the stories of those who are affected by a parent, friend or family member’s experience with domestic violence.
One in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. That means this is an issue that affects a lot of people — and if it’s impacted you in some way, I want to hear your story.
I once heard that the greatest allies of domestic violence, along with sexual assault, are silence and darkness. These actions, and the power they have over victims, thrive in the shadows.
This is my attempt to bring them to light. I hope you’ll spend some time reading this ongoing series, and stay tuned for future stories. As always, reach out to me any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.