Officer Joy Dominguez has a surprising reaction to the increased number of domestic violence reports in Collierville. She’s glad. No, she isn’t glad that families in her community are suffering. Dominguez, who coordinates the CPD’s Domestic Violence Unit, is glad those families are seeking and getting help. She’s especially glad the Family Violence Council of Collierville continues to increase community awareness of domestic violence and offers its resources to combat and end the cycle of violence. In 1998, the CPD was averaging about eight domestic violence calls per month. When Dominguez compared the average number of reports of domestic violence in Collierville with similar communities nationwide, she realized the occurrence of domestic violence was drastically underreported in the town of Collierville. “I knew from experience there was a problem and that people just weren’t coming forward,” says Dominguez. “We knew we needed to increase awareness and educate the public.” The department now responds to approximately 15 calls per month. Thanks in large part to the efforts of the FVCC, people in Collierville no longer look the other way. In 1998, Dominguez made a plea for camera and video equipment to be used to document incidents of domestic violence. In response, a small group of concerned citizens organized themselves into an active force for change in the town of Collierville. Educating the public, creating awareness, and rallying community resources to assist victims of domestic violence has been their mission ever since. FVCC President Sherrie Rinehart acknowledges the job hasn’t been easy, “It’s a little embarrassing for some people to admit this sort of problem exists in our community. We tend to want to stick our heads in the sand and pretend we don’t have those problems. After all, Collierville is a wonderful town, with many affluent, well-educated people.” Yet Rinehart, a business and community leader in Collierville who had worked with victims of domestic violence in her former job at a government agency, knew all too well that family violence can exist in any community, often without detection. “It’s not the sort of problem you go to your neighbor with,” says Rinehart. Maintaining anonymity for the victims, while increasing awareness and educating the public, has been an especially difficult challenge in a town that prides itself on its “small-town charm.” “There’s still an element of shame and embarrassment associated with domestic violence,” says Rinehart. “And, while Collierville has certainly grown in size, it still feels like a small Southern town where everyone knows one another.” Rinehart says the fear of embarrassment contributes to the victims’ reluctance to seek help, which then further contributes to the mistaken perception that domestic violence doesn’t exist. The founding members of the FVCC knew, if they were to improve their community, they must first get the problem of domestic violence out in the open. They would have to break through the barrier of denial. As a part of that effort, they have established an ongoing community awareness campaign. Each fall, the FVCC holds a chicken dinner fund-raiser, primarily to fund various projects, but also to create public awareness for their cause. The proceeds are used, in part, to purchase equipment for the Domestic Violence Unit, which includes cameras and video recorders to document victims’ statements. According to Dominguez, approximately 80 percent of all domestic violence victims later recant, refusing to cooperate with the police or prosecutors. Having taped testimony and pictures of the victims increases the chances of a conviction, even when victims are too frightened or intimidated to press charges. FVCC funds have also provided additional training materials for the Collierville Police Department on domestic violence. Also, the FVCC has provided funding for emergency shelter and assistance to victims. While in the past they have relied on agencies in Memphis for such assistance, the FVCC is currently working toward establishing an emergency shelter site in Collierville. Rinehart says, “Most of our victims don’t want to uproot and move into Memphis. Especially for those who have children in school, the upheaval would be very frightening and upsetting. We want to be able to help them without requiring them to leave town for that help.” Emily Tooley, a licensed clinical social worker and one of the founding members of the FVCC, says the benefit of such a site would be to maintain some sense of normalcy and stability in the victims’ lives, while providing the help they need. “The most important thing is to get them away from danger and provide a safe place to seek help,” says Tooley. Recently, the FVCC has branched into preventive efforts by sponsoring a pre-school program aimed at anger management and violence prevention. The program, called Della the Dinosaur, teaches children how to recognize “harmful ways” of dealing with anger and replace them with “helpful ways.” Dori Clark, FVCC member and program director, says she feels the program is an important step in preparing our children for the inevitable conflicts they’ll face growing up. “While most children are taught to settle disputes peacefully,” says Clark, “sooner or later, they’ll likely come in contact with another child who hasn’t learned any positive conflict resolution skills. It’s important they know how to handle that situation and choose positive ways of expressing their anger.” Through education, awareness, and resources, the FVCC has helped Joy Dominguez and the Collierville community address a serious problem that was previously illusive. Sometimes, not naming our illness makes it easier to believe we are not really sick. Unfortunately, it also becomes impossible to seek a cure. Memphis Parent salutes the FVCC for bringing domestic violence into the open in Collierville, so that those who suffer will know where and how to seek help. As Sherrie Rinehart says, “Admitting we have problems doesn’t make us weaker. It makes us a better, stronger community.” [This story first appeared in Memphis Parent]

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