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State Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge

Louisiana has one of the highest rates of domestic violence fatalities in the nation — but remains one of only a handful of states without a formal review process to study why that is. 

That soon could change with the passage of House Bill 452, which would enable a team organized within the state Health Department to comb through victims' records to pinpoint missed opportunities for intervention and potential areas for reform. 

In some states, the review includes a deep-dive into the final months of a victim's life, with the goal of mapping out the systems they interacted with that might have been able to offer help. 

Elsewhere, those reviews revealed that outside of law enforcement, the most common authority figure victims interfaced with leading up to their death was their child's pediatrician. 

"Before that finding, we didn't think to develop screening tools and training for pediatricians to identify signs of domestic violence," said Mariah Wineski, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

Such review teams have been around for nearly two decades and currently exist in at least 46 states, Wineski said. 

By all accounts, Louisiana faces an epidemic of domestic violence. The state has the fifth highest rate of women murdered by men in the nation — nearly twice the national average, according to the Violence Policy Center — and homicide is among the leading causes of death for pregnant women in the state, according to researchers at Tulane and LSU. 

Still, those numbers only offer a rough approximation of the problem. The statewide review panel would offer a clearer picture by characterizing and identifying the exact scope and nature of domestic abuse fatalities.

"You never know what you're going to find, but we want to make data-driven recommendations," Wineski said. 

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The measure, sponsored by Baton Rouge GOP Rep. Paula Davis, comes as the state emerges from a devastating year in which many victims of domestic violence were trapped at home amid the pandemic with their abusers. 

East Baton Rouge Parish in 2020 reported its highest number of domestic violence fatalities in at least a decade, and Jefferson Parish saw a surge in homicides fueled by family violence. 

If it becomes law, the review panel would include nearly two dozen officials from various law enforcement agencies and victims advocacy groups. 

When the legislation was heard in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, Rep. Malinda White, a Bogalusa Democrat and survivor of domestic abuse, choked up when Wineski mentioned the isolation that victims often face. 

"When you mentioned isolation, I know what that feels like," White said, her voice wavering. "You would think that's way in the past but it comes to the front real quick when you hear about things like this."

White is the sponsor of House Bill 159, which would expand the definition of domestic abuse to include some forms of non-physical emotional abuse, such as coercion, control and intimidation — language experts argue better reflects the realities of domestic abuse. 

The measure would allow victims to obtain protective orders before they endure physical violence, but it has come under fire from the state's powerful gun lobby, who say the definition is too broad and will result in gunowners losing their firearms too often. 

The legislation will be heard Tuesday at 10 a.m. in Senate Judiciary Committee A.

Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater