Merlene Davis: New program seeks to restore dignity to battered women

Wherever I look on the Internet for this information, the number comes back the same: One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

That is a lot of women.

I know we don't like to talk about this. In fact, domestic violence is one of the most under-reported crimes in this country. But we have to talk about it, because victims of domestic violence need help to regain their footing and their mental, emotional and physical health.

That's especially true if those victims are incarcerated, because they don't have access in jail or prison to the counseling and support needed to repair self-esteem or to learn how to deal with future problems upon their release.

Couple that with the usual difficulties that those with criminal records have in finding work, and often you have a group of women who see no other choice but to return to a negative lifestyle.

"They are coming back into the community and are vulnerable," said LeTonia Jones, advocacy programs administrator for the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association.

"The reason we have been working with this population of people is because domestic violence has been one of the pathways for incarceration for women," Jones said.

To help with re-entry, KDVA has created the 2nd Chance Reentry Coaching Project, which will pair female volunteers with formerly battered jail inmates in Lexington and Louisville before and after their release.

The two-year pilot project is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and is a collaboration with the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program in Lexington; the Center for Women and Families in Louisville; the Fayette County Detention Center; and the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections.

KDVA was one of six agencies to win the grants nationwide and maybe the only one starting in the jails, Jones said.

The first group of five volunteers — which the program calls coaches — from each city will be chosen from applicants who meet the criteria to be a coach and who complete a 1½ -day training session in Frankfort that starts April 27. The deadline for applicants is March 30. A second session will be in the fall.

Jail inmates will be served during the pilot program — because of the shorter sentences compared to those of prison inmates — and there will be an opportunity for the coaches to work with the women after they return to their communities. If the program is judged successful through data examined by a researcher at the University of Kentucky, coaches might be enlisted for women in prison.

Jones believes that working with the women who are in jail could help them avoid getting felonies and going to prison. When they are released, she said, there will be a familiar face on the outside who can help them.

Not just anyone can be a coach, however, she said.

"They have to have an understanding of domestic violence and not be victim-blaming right off the bat," Jones said. "They need to understand that to blame a victim is not the best way to end this violence."

KDVA is looking for people who care about their communities and who are interested in seeing others succeed, she said. "We want to create the human connection without judgment," she said. "They (the volunteers) will not be providing monetary support. Just being there is important. Showing up makes a difference."

If a battered woman wants to be involved in a faith community, the coach could take her to church. If the woman wants more social interaction, the coach could introduce her to activities that the coach enjoys. The interaction would probably begin about three months before the release and then once a week for at least six months afterward, Jones said.

"I believe there is a profound need to let these people know they are not to blame and to restore them to dignity and humanity," Jones said. "When we ignore that, we are saying it is all right to abuse people."

To download an application, go to

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