OPINION: How the NCGA can take action on domestic violence

Originally Published in Citizen Times

Rep. Brian Turner, GUEST COLUMNIST

When Erica Smith and her four children were shot last month in their West Asheville home, waves of grief rippled through our entire community. The classmates, coworkers, family and friends of the victims were joined in their grief by our entire community as we asked, “How could this have happened?”

The answer, unfortunately, is that domestic violence is more common than many people realize. It lurks within the sacrosanct confines of the home, often shielded from the view of friends, family, and neighbors. But, while the acts themselves may happen in private, the impacts are incredibly far reaching. These traumas and their impacts are felt across our community and show up in our schools, where we work, it adds to the burden of our overloaded courts, our human service agencies and worst of all the emergency room. One recent study estimated that the more than 3,400 instances of domestic violence in Buncombe County each year cost taxpayers in excess of $6 million, and that is $6 million too much.

As we continue to develop a better understanding of the causes and impacts of domestic violence we better are able to understand how we can prevent these abuses.

One tool that has proven effective in this effort around the nation is the creation of Domestic Violence Fatality Review Task Forces. These task forces, initially started as a project of Northern Arizona University, are asked to conduct a thorough review of any fatality which results from intimate partner violence. Task force members are given access to medical, criminal and court records, which might otherwise be sealed or inaccessible due to privacy concerns, and they are empowered to interview friends and family members of victims. All of this is done with the goal of developing a more complete understanding of what happened so that we might find policies to help prevent the next tragedy.

DVFR Task Forces are not new in North Carolina. They currently exist in Mecklenburg, Alamance, and Pitt Counties and have been instrumental in proposing new policies at both the county and state level, policies which help ensure that we increase early detection of domestic violence, assist victims and offer effective interventions.

I wish we were able to say that Buncombe County does not need such a task force. But, in 2013, our county ranked second in the state for the number of domestic violence fatalities. There were as many domestic violence homicides in Buncombe County that year as there were in Wake County – a county with four times the population.

We have made great strides in shedding that unfortunate distinction, not the least of which was the opening of the Family Justice Center in 2016.  The center provides a central location for victims who, prior to its opening, needed to navigate a variety of agencies and services scattered across Buncombe County to try to get the help they needed to be safe. And, while the Family Justice Center has helped to reduce the number of domestic violence fatalities, there is so much more we can do if we give advocates and experts the tools and information they need to help us craft the most effective policies.

A DVFR Task Force would be a strong next step to do just that by developing a comprehensive picture of the circumstances that led to each death, and then using that knowledge to recommend new policies and interventions to prevent future fatalities. Mecklenburg’s Task Force has already been instrumental in making recommendations that led to changes in state law to further protect children who are exposed to violence. They have also helped implement changes in the local school system that led to better training of school personnel so they can identify signs that a child is being traumatized by domestic violence at home, one of the few external indicators that may help identify a victim who is otherwise unable or unwilling to come forward.

Last year I was joined by Rep. Susan Fisher and John Ager in sponsoring HB 217 to create a DVFR Task Force in Buncombe County. It passed the house unanimously and I look forward to working with Senator Edwards and Senator Van Duyn to make sure it passes out of the Senate when we return to Raleigh for the 2018 legislative session.

We owe it to our friends, our neighbors, and our community to make sure that we are doing everything we can to prevent these senseless deaths and keep each other safe.

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, please reach out to the wonderful folks at the Family Justice Center at (828) 250-6900.

Brian​ ​ Turner​ ​ is​ ​ member​ ​ of​ ​ the​ ​ North​ ​ Carolina​ ​ House​ ​ of​ ​ Representatives, representing​ ​ District​ ​ 116​ ​ in​ ​ Buncombe County.