by Michelle Barclay
On Oct 1, attorney April Ross began her new job as ED of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence. She was a prosecutor in Fulton County for 7 years and has a personal history with domestic violence (DV) dating back 5 years which left her paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Her story has been covered in a number of publications such as the Daily Report, JJIE and multiple newspapers. I caught up with Ms. Ross to ask her about her priorities for her new job.
MB: How do you think your personal story impacts your leadership of this statewide commission?
AR: I think the road to this position has been rather organic. As I recovered, I chose not to be silent about what happened and I began to inform myself about domestic violence. I realized how much I did not know. People who talked to me were also astonished and asked, “how did YOU not know with all of your work history and your intermittent advocacy against DV which started back in law school?” It leads one to assume that my experience and knowledge should have shielded me from this sort of harm, but I have learned that I was woefully uneducated about domestic violence. I became determined to teach when I recovered, which includes telling my story, but more than that. It is my mission to provide education on this issue and to raise awareness which has led me on the path to this job.
My injury helps me with my vision for how the Commission and community outreach can evolve throughout the state. I think what’s critical is arming people with the knowledge of what DV looks like early enough so that people are not going into these relationships in the first place or not staying in them long enough for the relationship to become dangerous.
MB: So you put in your application for the position and when you got that call that you were going to be appointed, what was your reaction?
AR: I thought it was a prank! I just could not believe it. I had been appointed as a commission member only a year prior (by Gov. Nathan Deal) and I was such a fan of Jennifer Thomas (former director) because she was so instrumental in my growth as a survivor. Another Commission member and I were talking and she recommended that I put my name in the hat which I did not take too seriously at the time. But I thought about it for a while and I decided I would put my name in. I was thrilled and surprised to actually get the job. Over time, the weight of this job has settled on me. This is a tremendous opportunity to really make an impact. At times, it is a little overwhelming, but it is a welcome challenge in that I am driven to make a difference.
MB: What are some reasonable changes you think could be made to reduce family violence in our state?
AR: I see a two-fold approach. The first approach has to be proactive in that we need to arm people with information and we need to make domestic violence resources household knowledge. I was at two church services recently and I asked the audience, how many of you know the domestic violence hotline by heart? Between the two services, I saw maybe 5 hands go up. I would like that hotline phone number to be as common knowledge as 911. Other knowledge that I would like to become common -outside identifying the signs of physical violence-is what does DV look like? What are the signs of DV? What are the relationship dynamics of abuse? What are the tactics that abusers use? These are essential questions because it is known that before the first physical blow comes to pass, psychological and emotional abuse has already set in. If you do not recognize the signs, you are getting yourself set up for being caught in that web and then when the violence comes, it is harder to walk away or it is deadly by that time.
The second approach has to be rehabilitative and that is part of what the Commission seeks to do with the Family Violence Intervention Program (FVIP). Georgia has to be cutting edge and innovative in our approach to offender rehabilitation in DV. We know that many abusers and people who are convicted go on to reoffend in that same category either with the same partner or a new partner. What that says to me is that we need to make sure the corrective action plans that we are putting in place are working. I believe that comes down to watching the data to measure the effectiveness of our intervention program and continuing to seek out more innovation, looking nationwide or developing on our own, but really focusing on strategies to increase offender rehabilitation.
MB: What is the short term outlook for your new job? Long term?
My short term priority is to improve the quality of the data for our state. It is not a new challenge and the commission has already been working on this but we have to get better data. Improvement will come from agencies properly flagging cases as DV-related cases (a training issue that we are pushing throughout the state) and then arming people with more information so that more people are calling the police and reporting DV when it is occuring. It would be good to know what Georgia really looks like when it comes to domestic violence via a data picture.
Long term, I would like our statewide DV community task forces to be even more actively engaged in their communities so they are a well known resource for information and for pointing people in the right direction. I would like them to be so well known that our state agency would be inundated with all sorts of resources so that any person could get quick and efficient access to what they need to get out of a situation and to avert violence in a relationship. Right now, that mantle is being taken up by our non-profit world which is wonderful but it is also a state responsibility to be a thorough and vigorous resource for our citizenry. So, I would like to see the state better threaded with community engagement and awareness around DV.
I was talking to my mom about a church service recently where it was wear pink day at church and everyone in the choir was wearing pink. Then, I went to my nephew’s middle school football game and all the boys were wearing pink socks, and then I went to a sorority happening and everyone was wearing pink. Everyone knows that pink is the “brand” for breast cancer awareness. You don’t have to have a relative or a friend with breast cancer to participate. I would love for the issue of DV to have that sort of solidarity of support to defeat it, and to have empathy and awareness for DV victims. DV, when it happens, has a huge impact across families, friends, neighbors, etc. I’d love to see the same engagement, recognition and enthusiasm around wearing purple for DV awareness as there is for wearing pink.
MB: Speaking to the judges in this state, what do you think is the most effective strategy for dealing with the family violence cases before them?
The best advice I could give to our Georgia judges is to become trauma informed. Don’t just be a decider of facts and make a ruling by the letter of the law. I think it is important to be aware from the bench of the dynamics that could be present right before your eyes (or hiding in plain sight). Victims may behave strangely in court which may or may not inform the judge of the victim’s true state of mind or what is truly going on in that relationship. Judges can take the initiative in the court to ask more questions or let the victim know that ‘I hear you’ or ‘I understand that this is difficult’ when victims are being reluctant to speak. An acknowledgement by the judge that they understand that the case outcome has a direct impact on the victim’s safety and livelihood. Victims of DV are not a monolith. Sometimes pathology is involved. Some victims will come in fighting and kicking that they do not want to prosecute, but that may not actually be true. Some victims will be looking for a way to maintain the relationship as there may be children involved or some other considerations. The decisions that the judge makes will have to take into account the safety of the victim, perhaps children too, and the well-being of all involved—focused on rehabilitation to obtain the best outcome so the parties involved can live safely and so we minimize chances of repeats and escalations. It is a thin and challenging line to walk, but I think our bench in Georgia has the ability to do it.