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Shelter From the Storm

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Mary Claire Landry helps victims of domestic violence reclaim their lives.

Romantic and family relationships are ideally about love, but, in some dark cases, emotional abuse and physical violence can take root. And because victims’ lives are so intertwined psychologically and financially with their abusers, escape from these relationships is often difficult. MaryClaireLandryIt’s hard to know where to even begin finding help. Luckily, people in New Orleans who find themselves trapped in abusive relationships can turn to the New Orleans Family Justice Center.

“We’re focused on keeping victims safe and holding perpetrators accountable,” says Mary Claire Landry, the executive director of the center (which is housed on the second floor of the main post office on Loyola Avenue). “On site, we have nine different agencies and 14 programs. The idea is to co-locate everything in one location, so a victim only has to go to one place. Otherwise, if you give someone in crisis a piece of paper with 20 places to visit, they’re not going to get past the first one.”

The New Orleans Police Department’s Domestic Violence Unit is housed in the Family Justice Center, as are several providers of legal services and counseling. An emergency shelter, however, is operated elsewhere in a secret location.

“Before Katrina, all we had was an emergency shelter — but maybe 95 percent of victims of domestic violence would never think of going there,” Landry says. “We knew we needed a centralized, visible location.”

And services aren’t just limited to helping victims extricate themselves from an immediate crisis. They also help survivors re-establish their lives independently of their abusers. For example, the center offers GED courses, résumé help and immigration assistance.

After examining a number of models across the country, Landry adapted San Diego’s approach for New Orleans. The Department of Justice awarded her a $3 million grant. The Family Justice Center began under the umbrella of Catholic Charities, but it became independent over two years ago. Today, it assists 1,600 survivors and their children per year.

According to Landry, Orleans Parish police receive some 12,000 domestic violence-related calls annually, and about 25 percent of them end up in some sort of arrest or charge. In any given year, 4,000 people in Orleans Parish alone will file some sort of civil restraining order. Furthermore, Louisiana consistently ranks in the top five on the national list of domestic violence homicides.

“Our integrated approach has made a great impact,” Landry says. “Before Katrina, we had 20 to 25 homicides per year in Orleans Parish, and now we have about four. It’s still a major problem in other parts of state, and we’re currently working with other parishes to duplicate our model.”

Landry says that domestic violence is primarily male on female, but about 10 percent of victims who use the center are male. She also notes that the need is likely higher, but male victims are more reluctant to seek help because of social stigmas. Landry is also very sensitive to the effects that abuse has on children.

“When kids don’t feel safe, it causes them to fail in school,” she says. “They can’t concentrate. They can’t be successful. I’ve heard 911 calls from a child who’s terrified because Dad is pointing a gun at Mom’s face. Kids don’t easily recover from these environments. If you did a study of young men shooting one another, I would bet that a good portion of them grew up in abusive households. We need to do more intervention with the children in these homes.”

Landry, who grew up in Donaldsonville in Ascension Parish, got into this work during the years she was a nun. She joined the Daughters of Charity right out of high school; she moved to a convent in New Orleans; and she worked with Catholic Charities.

“I left the order in 1985,” she says. “I was mission-driven, but I wanted my independence. I wanted to choose the work that I was doing. I loved being a sister, but it was time to go.”

Still, Landry continued to work with Catholic Charities for a while, and, along the way, she earned a Masters degree in Social Work from Tulane University and an MBA from the University of New Orleans. In 1993, she was asked to run Crescent House, a domestic violence shelter. “I wasn’t interested in running a 24-hour facility, but I really was drawn to work,” she says. “I didn’t know how prevalent domestic violence was. I see now how it’s a root cause of many social maladies we have.”

October is Domestic Violence Month, during which the center will hold community events and speaking engagements, and stage its annual fundraiser.

“I’m proud of our team,” Landry says. “I have over 60 people working in this building with me. They come from different corporate cultures — police, legal, social services — but everyone finds common ground and works in unison. Everyone really wants to help. It’s difficult work. It can be heartbreaking sometimes when you see the condition people are in when then arrive, but it’s rewarding to help them reclaim their lives.”