Assistant City Attorney/Prosecutor Kimberly Walker Nailor, center, confers with social worker Linda Sweezer, left, and court administrator Kayla Hudson during an October 2021 session of domestic violence center in Vicksburg, Miss. Credit: Blair Ballou/MCIR

Domestic violence advocates say Mississippi lawmakers have missed an opportunity to pass legislation aimed to help survivors, such as the creation of domestic abuse courts geared to their needs.

“In order to fix your problem, you have to be willing to admit that there is a problem. And nobody in the state wanted to admit there was a problem with domestic violence,” said Rep. John Hines Sr., D-Greenville. “If you kill (the bill), we don’t have to talk about that.”

He has been filing legislation to establish domestic abuse courts since as early as 2013, and those bills died in committee and didn’t make it to the full House floor.  

This year, Hines filed House Bill 170 to establish domestic abuse courts across the state, and that bill passed the House with 119 votes and moved to the Senate’s Judiciary B and Appropriations committees where it died. Sen. Joey Fillingane, chair of the Judiciary B Committee, and Sen. W. Briggs Hopson III, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.

Hines wonders how many people would still be alive or uninjured or how many families would still be together if the state had domestic abuse courts in place. 

Nearly 40% of Mississippi women and 32% of Mississippi men experience intimate partner physical violence, sexual violence or stalking in their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Wendy Mahoney, executive director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said domestic abuse courts are needed and there are already models of them working in Vicksburg and Hattiesburg

Hines said the intervention court model, which is already in place for drugs and mental health, can work for domestic abuse. In addition to helping survivors, the court would be a place for  abusers to learn their actions are violent and how to not hurt others. He said it could also 

disrupt the cycle of children learning that domestic abuse is okay or that it is okay to be abused. 

Hines sees parallels between how control is exercised in domestic abuse situations and the state Legislature: One political party maintains control and makes decisions, such as what ideas and policies move forward. That is what happened with Medicaid expansion, postpartum Medicaid expansion, funding for historically Black colleges and universities and with House Bill 1020, Hines said, referring to the legislation that would subvert the power of Jackson’s police force by empowering the state Capital Police to have citywide jurisdiction and allow the state’s chief justice to appoint judges to hear cases in Hinds County.

This year is the furthest Hines’ domestic abuse court bill has advanced, which he sees as a good sign that legislators are more open to the idea of establishing the courts. If needed, he plans to refile the bill in the next session and as long as he is a lawmaker. 

The idea to set up domestic abuse courts came from former 9th District Chancery Court Judge Marie Wilson, whom Hines said wanted the authority to create programming to help survivors, perpetrators and their children by getting them the proper care and treatment they needed. 

Other legislation filed this session was House Bill 65, which would allow a domestic abuse survivors to get out of a rental lease without notice if their safety is at risk, and Senate Bill 2084, which would allow judges to include pets in domestic abuse protection orders. 

Mahoney said domestic abuse court programs and these other efforts are the standard in other states. 

Rep. Daryl Porter, D-Summit, proposed HB 65 and a similar bill last year. In the current session, the bill made it to the House floor, but it was tabled and died before the body’s Feb. 9 deadline to advance bills. 

Under HB 65, landlords would have been prohibited from removing a tenant or ending the individual’s rental agreement if the tenant is a domestic violence survivor and calls 911 for safety or medical help. 

Mahoney said in other states, shelters are able to verify those who have experienced domestic abuse if they have reached out or received services from the shelter. 

Landlords also would not have been able to charge a penalty if the survivor terminated the rental agreement or disclose personal information that can be used to locate the tenant after the individual left the property, according to the bill. Termination of a rental agreement due to domestic abuse also couldn’t have been used against a person seeking to enter a new rental agreement. 

Porter did not respond to a request for comment. 

Under SB 2084, companion animals such as dogs and cats would be considered personal property that a judge can direct a person not to abuse or damage. 

Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, proposed the bill and started filing similar legislation in 2018. Most of the bills have died in the Judiciary A Committee, but in 2019 the legislation made it to the full House before failing to receive action by deadline. 

Hill and Sen. Brice Wiggins, who chairs the Judiciary A Committee, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Mahoney said domestic and animal abuse are connected, and harm or threat of harm to an animal is often used as coercion to keep an abused person from leaving. 

People have called shelters in the state to ask if they can bring pets, she said. Shelters have worked with veterinary clinics and Mississippi State Unversity’s Veterinary School to house animals. Domestic Abuse Family Shelter, which serves the Pine Belt area, received a grant to provide space for pets in its shelter. 

Overall, Mahoney said the coalition and other advocates aren’t always informed about domestic abuse-related legislation when it’s filed and more often they learn about it later in the process. She believes there can be a greater impact if advocates can learn earlier to provide feedback to lawmakers as they work on legislation. 

“Out of the need of survivors, this is what we do in our field,” Mahoney said. 

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Mina, a California native, covers the criminal justice system. Before joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Clarion Ledger and newspapers in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.