Violence: What to know, ideas for response

May 3, 2024

The impact of violence and how to improve outreach and response was the topic of the 23rd annual Rural Health Conference April 17-18 hosted by the Institute for Rural Health Research, which is part of the College of Community Health Sciences.

Conference speakers from across Alabama and the country gave keynote and breakout presentations with a focus on individual, domestic and community violence, providing information about these types of violence and offering ideas for preparedness, prevention and recovery.

Organizers of the conference, “Turning the Tide…On Individual, Domestic, and Community Violence,” said they hope attendees take ideas from the conference back to their communities and implement programs and initiatives that can make a difference.

“We have had a lot of different topics over the years at the Rural Health Conference, but none more important than this,” Dr. John C. Higginbotham, director of the Institute for Rural Health Research, said in conference opening remarks. “In less than a week, we had three people die in Tuscaloosa due to gun violence. It happens far too much.”

“Firearms are the No. 1 cause of death in our children, and Alabama has a very high firearm injury rate, including homicide and suicide,” added Dr. Louanne Friend, associate professor of community medicine and population health with CCHS, who also provided remarks to open the conference.

The first of the two-day conference focused on gender-based violence and sex trafficking, managing mass fatality events, the effects of violence within communities, forensic DNA testing, emerging trends in child deaths in Alabama and mental health crises. The second day focused on gun violence, self-injury, the psychology of incarceration and making prevention a reality.

The conference also included student and professional poster displays about current research on different types of violence.

Highlights from some of the presentations:

“Addressing Gender Based Violence and Sex Trafficking in Alabama: A collaboration between Community Partners and Researchers”

Brenda Maddox, director of the Tuscaloosa SAFE Center, spoke about rape culture, which she defined as an environment in which rape is prevalent and sexual violence normalized and excused. Rape is an illegal sexual activity carried out forcefully or under threat of injury, including to those who are underage, those who cannot consent because of a mental illness or deficiency, and those who are intoxicated or unconscious. “Rape culture is a society excusing or tolerating sexual violence. It’s very sad and scary that even in this day and age we’re still there.” Statistics from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network show that four in five sexual assaults are committed by someone who knows the victim, and 44% of victims of sexual assaults are under the age of 18.

Brandy Martinez, from Turning Point Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services in Tuscaloosa, said domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior in a relationship used by one person to gain or maintain power and control over another. “It doesn’t have to be something physical. Domestic violence can include emotional abuse, financial abuse and control in social situations. Just because a physical component may be missing from an abusive situation, doesn’t make it any less dangerous.” Martinez said abusers might assert their control over an individual through intimidation tactics and isolation from their children, family and friends. Turning Point is a domestic violence shelter in Tuscaloosa, Ala., that provides services for people who have experienced interpersonal violence. The organization also offers outreach services to nine West Alabama counties – Lamar, Fayette, Marengo, Pickens, Bibb, Greene, Hale, Sumter and Tuscaloosa.

“The Effects of Violence Within Communities”

Eddie Compass, retired Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, said communities must band together to try and reduce violence. “It has to be a strategy that involves every aspect of the community. Enforcement can’t do it alone, the medical community can’t do it alone, the political community can’t do it alone, and actual people who are on the streets can’t do it alone.” Compass said several ways he worked to help lower the crime rate while at NOPD was by creating after-school programs for juveniles and job opportunities for former gang members. “We worked to change the whole mindset of an entire system.” Compass said he was also part of a team that turned around “the most corrupt police department (NOPD) in the United States” and brought back the community’s trust.

“Forensic DNA Testing in Alabama—Recent Advances in Sexual Assault, Homicide, and Cold Case Efforts”

The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences is a state laboratory system responsible for analyzing biological evidence, including fluids and tissues, collected by local and state law enforcement agencies at crime scenes. Four labs in Alabama perform forensic biology analyses and are located in Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile. Dr. Jason Kokoszka, chief of forensic biology for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, said the Birmingham lab alone receives an average of 250 rape and sexual assault submissions every year. All four labs test the biological evidence they receive via submissions. Kokoszka said the analyses are performed through DNA testing to identify the source of biological evidence. For cases where there is no identified suspect, DNA profiles of possible perpetrators are searched within the Combined DNA Index System, which allows law enforcement agencies to match a DNA profile from an unsolved crime to someone who has been convicted.

“Child Deaths in Alabama—Emerging Trends from 12 months of Forensic Science Cases”

“If you combine all of the firearm deaths together to include suicides, homicides and accidental deaths, that is more than one case per week (annually) among our youth in Alabama,” said Rebekah Boswell, forensic pathology manager of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences. She said juvenile deaths in the state are mostly the result of gun violence, suicides, and blunt and sharp force injuries. Gun violence can occur during shootings and robberies. Blunt force injuries can result from blows with a blunt object, including a weapon and even a fist. Sharp force injuries are caused by sharp objects, such as a knife or scissors. Boswell said a new trend in youth suicides involves the use of sodium nitrate. “Sodium nitrate is typically utilized as a food preservative and can be mixed with water or juice. It can decrease your body’s ability to retain oxygen.” Much of the information Boswell provided is gathered through child death investigations and shared statewide. “My hope is that those who can create change will use my information to educate others.”

“The Psychology of Incarceration”

Ameer Baraka, Emmy nominated actor and activist, was in prison when he was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading. Had he not had the learning disorder, Baraka believes he wouldn’t have ended up in prison. He said studies show that 50% of the nation’s prison inmates have dyslexia. Baraka said it’s important for children to be screened for dyslexia, but that there is little access to screening in low-income communities, “If children are not identified, they will never receive the evidence-based intervention that will change their lives.” Baraka said children with learning disorders have a greater chance of dropping out of school and experiencing higher rates of unemployment, anxiety and depression.