It was born out of tragedy, but what resulted was one of the most comprehensive bills ever to end domestic violence in Louisiana. The state is—perhaps now, was—notoriously known as one of the most dangerous states for domestic violence homicides, ranking second in the nation in 2014.
After the tragic murder of one of their own by her husband, five rightfully angry women came together to try and change that, their accomplishments getting a very bright spotlight in the form of a 35-minute documentary called Five Awake, which won “Best Louisiana Feature” at the New Orleans Film Festival (Note: you can watch the full documentary by scrolling over the black box and clicking the play arrow).
It was a friend of Charmaine Caccioppi’s, chief operating officer of the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, who was brutally strangled and drowned in her bathroom in 2013 by her husband. The killer went on to shoot to death three more people—former in-laws and a previous boss—and injuring several others before turning the gun on himself.
Caccioppi says the incident changed her in more ways than one. She decided to use her platform at the United Way to advocate for change at the legislative level.
“We were not intimately immersed in [domestic violence] policy, but once we started the research it was a life-altering commitment,” she says.
“You can invest all the resources you want, but if you don’t invest in policies you’ll never be able to fundamentally change how your state handles domestic violence.”
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Finding Other Angry Women
The four other women she joined forces with included Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence executive director Beth Meeks; Louisiana State Representative Helena Moreno, who sponsored the legislative package; Mary Claire Landry, director of the New Orleans Justice Center; and Kim Sport, an attorney and public policy chair for the United Way of Southeast Louisiana whose sister is a survivor of domestic violence.
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“I didn’t know she was a victim of domestic abuse for 12 years of marriage,” Sport says. “I had introduced her to the man she was married to.” She says a lightbulb went on when she found out.
“I had no idea that domestic violence was so prevalent, particularly in upscale families.” Sport says she started looking at the laws regarding domestic violence and spousal support. In Louisiana, she says, if there was adultery present, a couple could immediately divorce.
“But if you had a protective order or there was abuse, you had to wait six months to get a divorce.” The thought was, the waiting period might lead to a reconciliation. This idea infuriated Sport as much as Caccioppi’s friend’s murder infuriated Caccioppi.
“You had two really determined people working on the same project,” Sport recalled.
The women say they went to the people who worked in domestic violence—the people on the ground helping survivors, the advocates who were so inundated with challenges just to provide safe housing, protective orders and counseling that they never had time to delve into the laws that were creating barriers, and asked them what they needed. And the requests came.
Can you make domestic violence a crime of violence?
Can you make sure the person with the protective order against them, threatening to kill these women, can’t get firearms?
Can you allow survivors to file for exemplary damages?
What resulted were six bills that would ultimately lead to:
- Increased penalties for domestic abuse
- Firearm prohibitions for offenders
- Guidelines for domestic abuse intervention programs
- Expedited transmission of protective orders to statewide law enforcement database
- Prohibition of release on recognizance for violation of protective orders
- Immediate divorce for victims
- Punitive damages for victims
- The creation of the Domestic Violence Prevention Commission
It was a lot to propose, but the women needn’t worry. The bills were passed unanimously by the state house and senate and signed into law by Republican Governor Bobby Jindal in 2014. All five women were appointed to the new Commission, with Sport serving as the first chairman.
And they didn’t stop there. More than 150 more provisions to Louisiana’s laws have been enacted or revised since then.
“This is one of those wonderful things that happen when you work hard and are really passionate about something,” says Caccioppi.
But the women are quick to dispel the idea that this was anything close to a walk in the park. “It wasn’t easy,” Sport says.
It took “hours and hours of painful research,” secondsCaccioppi. “Our adrenaline was so high when we realized what we had done in such a short amount of time. It made history.”
It also made the big screen. Filmmakers Donna Dees and Susan Willis began following the women during their history-making endeavor, turning it into an award-winning film that Caccioppi says has won at so many film festivals now, she’s lost count.
“When you work this hard, you never know who’s watching,” she says.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
It’s been four years since the five women made history, and they haven’t slowed down since.
“2018 was phenomenal. We changed our 30-year-old child custody laws … and were able to make the potential for a child who was abused the primary factor in awarding custody and visitation,” says Sport. In addition, any act of domestic violence that is committed against a pregnant woman, in the presence of a child or which involves strangulation now comes with a 3-year add-on penalty.
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