During a gathering of "Women With Heart," state Rep. Helena Moreno went right to the heart of a matter close to many women.
"I am so sick of domestic offenders who look at restrictive orders and think it's just a piece of paper," the New Orleans Democrat said.
The audience at Friday's luncheon in Opelousas applauded her anger and her action over domestic violence. In almost five years as a state lawmaker, Moreno has sponsored more than half a dozen bills that enhance penalties for offenders, make immediate divorce possible in domestic violence cases and restrict firearm possession for those with records of partner or child abuse.
For her attention to the issue, lawmakers from mostly rural areas such as St. Landry Parish have pushed back, Moreno said, then added, "Some of them would tell us a person couldn't take their child hunting because they can't have a firearm."
Her response? "That's right."
The solution lies in continuing the discussion with naysayers beyond that point, she said.
"It's going to take that dialogue to make our legislative partners understand why the restrictions are important."
Moreno said other cultural changes must happen to shift Louisiana's rank as the ninth most likely state for women to die at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends.
Many rural and small town police and sheriff's departments allow familiarity to cloud officers' judgment in domestic violence cases, she said. "They'll say, 'I grew up with this person. I'm not going to lock him up for this,'" Moreno said, "instead of 'I'm responding to a situation that involves criminal activity.'"
Changing the mindset around violence against women will help to reduce it, she said. "We have to keep the conversation going. It's something that can no longer be secret. It's not okay."
This month, the state's Domestic Violence Prevention Commission issued a report with recommendations that include more comprehensive tracking of offenders to reduce the possibility of their evading justice, broader definitions of domestic abuse to include psychological and physical harm, and a statewide survey of what support services exist for victims of domestic abuse.
Moreno said needs assessment is especially important in parishes like St. Landry, where nonprofits try to fill the gap because few government resources exist to help prevent domestic violence.
For these recommendations to become law, Moreno told the audience at the Opelousas luncheon, it will help to rally as many women as possible to advocate for issues that matter, and even to run for office. Although women and girls make up close to 52 percent of Louisiana's population, just under 12 percent of the legislators in Baton Rouge are women.
"More women in legislatures makes a really important difference when it comes to the kinds of legislation that gets passed," she said, and listed support for families, child care, education and equal pay among the key issues. Indeed, many of the domestic violence bills Moreno sponsored won unanimous support in the legislature after women organized and appeared en masse during debates.
Although it's important for women to care for their families, Moreno said, beyond that their biggest obstacle to political activity is self-doubt, lack of encouragement and distaste for fundraising and the rigors of campaigning.
"They are absolutely wrong for thinking this way," said the speaker, a former New Orleans local TV anchor who ran for office out of frustration that Hurricane Katrina evacuees were not getting the help they needed to return home.
"I am urging you, if you know someone who is thinking about running, push her that way. Encourage her to do it," said Moreno, who lost her first campaign for office but ran unopposed after she won her first term.
"It's not going to be easy, but it can be done."
The annual luncheon, sponsored by the Women's Leadership Council of the St. Landry-Evangeline United Way, also honored one woman from each parish with its Women With Heart award.
A stalwart of St. Landry Parish Public Schools' parent involvement office, Pat Mason-Guillory, won praise as "a woman who does not have 'no' in her vocabulary." Her advocacy for children and for military veterans, demonstrated in the years-long process that led to the opening of the St. Landry Parish Veterans Memorial on La. 182 just south of Opelousas, factored into the council's decision to choose her.
A longtime mover and shaker among the Friends of the Ville Platte Library, whose leadership helped garner support for a new library building, won the award for Evangeline Parish. Honoree Linda Lebsack also coordinated that parish's centennial celebration in 2011.
Want to know more?
The Domestic Violence Prevention Commission report is available atdcfs.louisiana.gov/assets/docs/searchable/WomensPolicy/La Domestic Violence Prevention Commission 2014-15 Report final.pdf