Blount on domestic violence efforts
District 29 Sen. David Blount is a board member of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence. He recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about his efforts to protect the privacy rights of victims of domestic violence. Blount is a graduate Davidson College and the University of Virginia. He and his wife, the former Katherine Drayne, have two children.
First of all, tell me why you sought an opinion from the attorney general.
“I serve on the board of directors of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence and I go to regular board meetings. One of the other board members operates a shelter in Mississippi raised this problem, that a local court had been making blanket requests for victim information. (The board member was) obviously concerned with protecting the confidentiality of victims, but wanted to make sure they were following state and federal law. It’s very rare for me to request an attorney general’s opinion on any subject, but I felt this was a very important subject. I requested it and got it back on October 13.”
Do you know why this court was seeking blanket information? And was this a court in Hinds or Madison county?
What did the opinion say?
“I’m not an attorney. Essentially, the shelter has to comply with state and federal law regarding confidentiality and also the state constitution regarding the rights of victims. So if the court needs this information, the standard should be limited to a specific circumstance, on a case-by-case basis, and the information should be made available just to the court itself.”
So in other words, courts can’t ask for blanket information?
“They can’t do that.”
The person who brought this issue up, the board member, could not ask for an AG’s opinion?
“No because they’re not a public officer.”
How big of a problem is domestic violence in the state?
“It’s a serious problem. But I will say it’s a problem we’ve made some progress on in recent years and there has been a lot of bipartisan work done in the legislature. Just a couple of weeks ago, the coalition held a banquet and the honoree was Gov. Phil Bryant, who has done a lot to protect victims. He knows about it personally from his time as a sheriff’s deputy. On the Senate side, I’ve worked with Sens. Brice Wiggins and Sally Doty, both of whom are Republicans, to pass laws in recent years to protect victims. As far as the legal climate is concerned, we’ve made a lot of progress. But the real people who are doing the work are in the shelters across the state and working with the victims. That’s where the coalition comes in.”
What have been some of the laws the state has passed?
“I need to go back and look at all of those. There have been a few. The person I have worked with most closely has been Heather Wagner in the attorney general’s office, and she wrote the opinion.”
What are some of the things that still need to be done, as it relates to domestic violence?
“We will be looking at that in December and January. It’s an annual review process for us. We will sit down with Attorney General Jim Hood’s office and the people who work in the field and ask them what the problems are shortly before the legislative session. That’s when we come up with the new proposals.”
Tell me more about the coalition against domestic violence.
“The coalition is a statewide umbrella organization of shelters (for domestic violence victims). They help each other with state and federal grants, complying with federal and state law and sharing best practices at the local level. They also work on raising awareness of the issue (of domestic violence) and push any changes that need to be made by policy makers. I’m going to the annual candlelight vigil tonight (October 24) at the state capitol. Again, it’s to raise awareness and organize victims to reduce domestic violence in Mississippi and make sure when it occurs, we protect the victims and punish those who are guilty.”
How many shelters are there in the state? And how many people do they serve?
“(There are) 12 domestic violence shelters to serve all 82 counties. (For fiscal year 2015) domestic violence shelters provided temporary house and safety to 2,114 women, men and children, and non-residential services to another 1,593 women, men and children. Domestic violence programs received a total of 40,317 calls for emergency assistance or referrals.”
Recently, the legislature updated the state’s divorce law to allow for divorces related to domestic violence.
“It was either this year or last year, we changed the divorce laws in the state. Sen. Doty really pushed it on our side.”
Do you know if it had an impact?
“I would hope that it has. I don’t have any documentation on that.”
How difficult is it to get a domestic violence bill passed?
“Any bill needs a lot of scrutiny, especially (bills) like this, by attorneys who have experience in criminal matters. There has been a lot of bipartisan collaboration on these issues. Gov. Bryant and Attorney General Hood, Sens. Doty and Wiggins and myself on the Senate side, and on the House side as well. The cooperation on these issues has been very good in recent years.”