City of Hattiesburg Domestic Violence Court continues providing services 2 years after creation
HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - Hattiesburg’s Municipal Court has a separate court docket dedicated to misdemeanor domestic violence cases after receiving a grant two years ago from the Mississippi State Department of Health’s Office Against Interpersonal Violence.
During the peak of the pandemic, Municipal Court Clerk and Administrator Phillip McSwain Jr. began to notice an uptick in a different kind of case.
“We started seeing a lot of domestic cases, but by me actually working the front counter, I was able to see a lot more individuals come in and also I was seeing a lot more repeat offenders,” said McSwain.
According to the Center for Diseases Control, domestic violence cases soared nationwide during COVID-19. In the past, misdemeanor cases at the municipal level would often be mixed in with other offenses on the docket.
“What I saw from my time working in court, it was an embarrassing situation for the victim, so I wanted to create a court from all other cases,” said McSwain.
The grant helped the municipal court hire a domestic violence coordinator and prosecutor.
Prosecutor Steven Adamson said the court has three objectives.
“Hold offenders accountable, improve victim safety and enhance the courtroom efficiency,” said Adamson.
The court partners with other groups and organizations, including the Domestic Abuse Family Shelter, to help victims and offenders.
Counseling and anger management programs are available along with court-approved programs for drug addiction and mental health.
“That’s pretty unique in that we are at a misdemeanor level, and we are able to adjudicate those types of offenses, oversee those offenders over a term and really achieve better results,” said Adamson.
Forrest County District Attorney Lin Carter’s office handles felony cases involving serious injuries, strangulation or a weapon. The office also prosecutes repeat offenders who face a felony after receiving two simple misdemeanor convictions within seven years.
Assistant District Attorney Becky Denham handles felony domestic cases that come to the office from Hattiesburg, Petal or Forrest County.
There are two, full-time victim advocates in the DA’s office. One of those positions is dedicated to special victim cases, including domestic violence and crimes involving children.
Victim advocates help answer questions about the judicial process, prepare for trial and provide other assistance.
Denham said domestic violence victims often put other needs ahead of their own.
“They don’t worry about their own safety because they are worried about children or the dog or upsetting the family dynamic or moving or lack of resources or maybe just shame that their marriage has failed,” said Denham.
Prosecutors also are faced with victims who sometimes want to recant stories.
“It is the state of Mississippi that brings charges in felony cases and often times we will pursue charges even if it is against the victim’s wishes because it is the right thing to do for that victim, her safety and well-being or his safety and well-being, and the community,” said Denham.
Denham said she encourages victims to take the first step by coming forward and said people can help by offering support and encouragement.
“If you have somebody going through this, be patient, pray for them and also encourage them to speak up and tell the appropriate authorities,” said Denham.
From Hattiesburg to Forrest County, there are plenty of resources available to help people break the cycle.
“People can change,” Denham said. “They can repent. They can be remorseful. You do not have to stay with them and reconcile. You can forgive and still move forward with your life.
You do not have to harbor any ill-will towards them, but you also don’t have to give them a chance to hurt you again.”
The DA’s office works with several other partners to help families in need, including DAFS.
The Center for Violence Prevention in Jackson, Kids Hub Child Advocacy Center in Hattiesburg, and the Shafer Center in Hattiesburg also help throughout the judicial process.
Always available: The Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-649-1092.
As Domestic Violence Awareness Month continues in October, WDAM 7 is partnering with the City of Hattiesburg to share more about resources available to help victims and offenders.
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