Welcome to the women + girls’ newsletter curated for you by the women of Mississippi Today — if a friend forwarded you this email, be sure you subscribe below to get the Inform[H]er monthly every second Sunday. Thanks for reading and feel free to send feedback/thoughts/questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Forensic nurses — unsung heroes
• The Sit-down (a recurring Q+A with a woman legislator)
• The Roundup (news you can use)
The state Legislature passed a big human trafficking bill this year. We talked to law enforcement, politicians, and even more advocates. But, per usual, the nurses gave us the straight talk.
When Shalotta Sharp held up what looked like a tadpole-shaped beanie baby toy, about 20 nurses shouted, “Gonorrhea!”
“My dog likes this one,” she joked, as she put down the teaching prop — one of several “fuzzies” she uses to represent the virus or bacteria shape of common sexually transmitted infections.
Last week, Sharp was training nurses from across the state to be SANEs, sexual assault nurse examiners. There are only two certified SANEs practicing in the state.
Sharp is a woman on a mission: to train as many nurses as possible to conduct forensic exams — any medical exam that can also serve as evidence collection for law enforcement, specifically for sexual assault investigations. Sharp coordinates projects through the Mississippi Coalition Against Sexual Assault and works with the state health department, crime lab and attorney general’s office to put on the training.
A new law on the books in Mississippi – the decriminalization of prostitution for children under the age of 18 – aims to increase the number of those investigations, by bolstering human trafficking statutes and victim services. Though the law doesn’t directly provide for exams, advocates say it’s the first step to ensuring wrap-around services for the victim and initial stages of an investigation. Some advocates say better coordination of services is still needed, and they worry that most law enforcement aren't trained to interact with victims during the early stages of sexual assault intervention.
A myth Sharp wants to bust: sexual assault and trafficking are not a health care problem.
“SVU (TV show) is not reality. When law enforcement don’t get educated and hospital professionals don't get educated, patients are not treated with trauma-informed care, patients are not believed and they walk away,” Sharp said. She does not want to lose those patients, because nurses know and research suggests, they will likely never come back. “#MeToo has brought this to the forefront — patients are not believed. Forensic nurses have known this a long time — patients are not believed.”
She hopes the nurses she trains will eventually get certified — nurses need to pass a test in addition to the 40-plus hours of training. Sharp teaches everything from sexual anatomy, to interviewing and direct examination techniques and photography, to rape kit collection.
Someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes — and less than half are reported. Most of those reported are not prosecuted, and according to the nonprofit Center for Violence Prevention, less than one percent of sexual assaults result in convictions. One in five women will be sexually assaulted before the age of 21, according to the American Medical Association.
A big part of forensic nursing involves educating law enforcement. Sexual assault can be hard to prove, because it can be difficult to show, she says. Most don’t involve physical injury, and even fewer show visible harm. Explaining this and anatomy, is part of the job — and so is supporting the patient through this process.
It’s never referred to as an “alleged” rape or sexual assault in the exam room. “No other patient population has an alleged injury — it’s not ‘alleged abdominal pain’ until proven,” she says. It’s presented and treated as the medical case that it is, just like sexual assault should be, she says.
For Sharp and other advocates, support starts with SANEs — a medical professional who can both treat and support victims at the beginning stages and let them know, “this is not your fault” and “we are here for you."
Sharp stresses sexual assault and trafficking victims need prioritized treatment and care and standardized support services. “They need very long-term treatment and therapy, and there's no funding for that and no resources for that. The outcome looks grim if we are going to throw a Band-Aid on a major arterial bleed, and it's not going to work.”
It’s all a puzzle, she says. “We tell our nurses, ‘You are one piece of the puzzle. There is the medical piece, investigator piece, and nothing works in a vacuum. Even if this case is not adjudicated, this patient got good medical care, an investigator that believed them, an advocate that intervened on their behalf, and got a prosecutor who could explain to the patient if it went forward without conviction, it’s not their fault. If you don't have everybody on the same page and everybody at the table, it's a puzzle with missing pieces and we all know what that looks like.”
As the first woman at the helm of the House of Representatives’ Judiciary B committee, Rep. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, leads the influential committee by listening and encouraging deliberation over the often technical bills with criminal justice implications. The committee passed the second-most suffrage bills ever and a hefty human trafficking bill. She also introduced bills aimed at standardizing the state’s approach to handling sexual assault cases and ensuring workplace equity — both to support families. Her message to women: “My hat’s off to you. Keep it up.”
Q+A with Rep. Angela Cockerham
Q: You chaired the Energy Committee previously. What surprised you this year in your Judiciary B leadership role, and where do you want to continue to expand?
A: When I chaired Energy, there were a few surprises. First of all, because I was a female chairing Energy, a lot of people didn't realize that I had practiced oil and gas law, and I also teach Louisiana mineral law at MC Law, and so I knew quite a lot about energy.
And then, to get the opportunity for Jud B, especially coming on the heels of criminal justice reform, and the Speaker wanted to work on human trafficking — I also had some concerns about bail reform — and suffrage was really near and dear to me as well. This year what I wanted to do with Jud B was bring the committee in on the process. I have ideas that I think are good, but I also have members who are on the committee who have ideas too. I wanted to utilize them. I wanted feedback from them.
Really, initially, I just had to get in and spend a lot of time reviewing every single bill because my philosophy — even with Energy (Committee) — was that if a member takes the time to go to LSO (legislative services) and get it drafted, it must be something that they have an interest in, so at least let me take the time to read it.
Q: Does the low number of women legislators concern you? What can we do to encourage more women to run?
A: Yes, it concerns me, and there were more (women serving) before when I started. We need women's perspective on all issues, whether it's pertaining to a woman or not — and in order to have a balance in both chambers, you would want female representation, just as well as men.
I always try to encourage (young women) on a high school and collegiate level to consider going into politics. This year, one of the pages who was here this last week of session, she came up to me, and she said ... 'I remember you from the class where you came and you spoke to us,' and said, 'I think this is something I want to do, and I could see myself being up here and really serving.' I was very encouraged to know that she listened, and when she came here to page, she really enjoyed the experience and knew that this was something she wanted to do.
It did resonate, and hopefully more women, more students, whether high school or college, more choir members when you are at your church ... all it takes is a word of encouragement — you never know. Once the seed is planted, hopefully it will grow.
Q: You introduced the Sexual Assault Response Act this year. It’s estimated that less than half of sexual assaults get reported, even fewer are prosecuted, and even far fewer result in convictions. Why is this act important to represent needs of victims of sexual assault at our universities?
A: I have begun to hear from parents who were having a few problems or issues without there ever actually being some sort of resolution ... it’s just a gut-wrenching feeling when it’s about a child. I actually had two grad students who were absolutely phenomenal to work with on this, and I thank God for them that I had the opportunity to work with them and to hear their stories … it was good to have them working along with me with the legislation, initially the first year I introduced it. (The bill) was more about bringing uniformity but also making sure students were protected (in coming forward).
We have to provide resources for our babies if this does happen, we do — “We are here for you, we are always going to be here for you, and if you decide that you want to continue here, then we are going to make sure every effort is put forward to making sure we fulfill whatever it is that your goal is.” I’m all about the babies ... We've got to make sure our young men are protected, too, because unfortunately sometimes young men are sexually assaulted. We try to protect our babies as much as we can. We pray over them. We know the good Lord is going to take care of them, and we have to have measures in place, so that, when things do happen to them, that we are like Johnny on the spot — “Hey, I’m here for you, I've got you.”
Q: Another bill you worked on was about ensuring safe and equitable workplaces. About half of our kids are in single family homes across the state, and most of those parents are women in lower-paying jobs that aren’t necessarily offering the robust benefits that you and I enjoy. Why is it important to ensure equity for them via a bill like this?
A: We say, "You need to go to work, and you need to get a job.” But, yet, when we do go out and get jobs, unfortunately when their child gets sick or if they have to take off time to have the child, unfortunately, sometimes, as you and I know, there are repercussions to that. That’s why this bill is so important, and it came at the impetus of Cassandra Welchlin of Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable.
Everybody, I believe, has a dream and a goal, and mine isn't going to be the same as yours and yours isn't going to be the same as mine — but guess what, it's not supposed to be by design. But I do believe we have to help each other achieve it, and that's what this bill is doing. My hat's off to the women who go out every day and they're supporting their family, they're putting food on the table, they're making sure that the homework is done, they're making sure that the children are healthy — if not, they're trying to get them to the doctor. That's a lot — and at the same time, you're going to work — it's a lot. They need this extra (support) to do what we are already doing. I mean, we make it look easy — but we've got to support each other.
Q: Both died in committee. What will it take in the Legislature to get them out?
A: I don’t know, but, just because it died, it doesn’t mean I'm going to stop. I'm just going to work harder. I think bills dying are just God's way of saying, "You know what, you just have to work a little bit harder." So that's what we'll do.
OB-GYN indicted after investigation
Two weeks after our investigation into how the state disciplines doctors accused of sexually assaulting patients, a doctor named in our investigation was indicted on 12 counts of sexual battery. The indictment was recently released and Mississippi Today obtained a copy. It names four more women than were initially listed in investigations, all of whom accuse Dr. Gregory Norwood, a Southaven-based OB-GYN, of inappropriately touching them during a routine exam — claims echoed by a source who was not named in the indictment but came forward during our investigation. Memphis-based law firm Wells and Associates says they represent 11 more victims, bringing the total number to at least 19. Read our investigation in collaboration with WLBTfor more about how the state handles — and sometimes fails to handle — sexual assault cases.
Remember that Baz Luhrmann Sunscreen song?
A remix to the classic intro: "Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '99: Wear sunscreen." Don't forget to apply it to your eyelids! If you're like me, the warm weather has you moving: hiking, patio cocktails and hitting the pool, but seriously, wear sunscreen. New researchreminds us of a spot prone to skin cancer and often neglected: your eyelids. They are thin and right in the line of rays, and home to 5 to 10 percent of skin cancers.
Heartbeat bill context
Last month, Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country, again. And quickly thereafter, the Center for Reproductive Rights sued the state, again.
Dubbed "the heartbeat bill," the law bans doctors from providing abortions once a heartbeat can be detected, usually around 6 weeks — when many women don't yet know they are pregnant. Planned Parenthood calls the restriction an "outright ban on abortion" and pushed back on similar bills that gained momentum in state houses across the country. At least three other states have passed similar bills and will likely be signed into law by their Republican governors.
Anti-abortion groups like Pro-Life Mississippi are powerful in the state and have the ear of many politicians who promote abortion restrictions. We talked with the director of one of those groups, Pro-Life Mississippi's Laura Duran, about their goals to better understand how the group works (see Q+A below). If you're in the Jackson area, you've probably seen her and others protesting outside of the state's only abortion clinic, Jackson Women's Health Organization. Some advocates call their tactics manipulative, and clinic escorts do everything in their power to shield women entering the clinic from protesters, because, as Duran says, they have a small window of opportunity to get women to "change their mind" and choose to parent or put the newborn up for adoption through a pro-life affiliated agency.
Lifeline Children Services is a faith-based licensed adoption agency based in Birmingham, Alabama. The organization reported more than $7 million in revenue in 2017. The Mississippi chapter says they have 22 families currently waiting to adopt and have placed three newborns for adoption this year. They work with Pro-Life Mississippi and local crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) to steer women toward adoption instead of an abortion. Pro-Life Mississippi is affiliated with and shares a building with Center for Pregnancy Choices, part of the Cline Center’s CPC umbrella, which is in Jackson across the street from the state’s only abortion clinic. There are at least 29 CPCs across the state.
Mississippi has one of the highest unintended pregnancy rates in the country at 56 percent, according to the CDC. There are over 4,700 kids in foster homes across the state currently.
Q: You spoke to MPB after the latest abortion restriction passed and said your message to women in unintended pregnancies considering abortions was: “Let us adopt your baby.” What did you mean?
A: We have an organization in Jackson and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, they're called Lifeline Children Services and when we can, and the mom is interested, we can give them their number and they will help them through the adoption process. If they come to the abortion clinic in Jackson (Jackson Women’s Health Organization), and they decided they want to adopt, and they will talk to us, then we give them that.
We also have people that will tell us that they want to adopt, if there's a mother there — that they will help that mother financially. They will, of course, do it legally, to adopt that baby. It's very difficult. It's very difficult to get a mom to say that they will adopt — that they will place their baby up for adoption. It's difficult, and we understand that, and we're so sorry, but we realize that is the best option over death.
Q: Is the goal of this abortion restriction legislation to get it to (and overturned by) the Supreme Court?
A: Well, no. We want to have it just become a law. We've done our part as far as the state. We would love for that to have happened, but it won’t now because they have filed the lawsuit, which we have to deal with. And, I will say, well, I don't think I'll say this, but we don't have too many pro-life judges here, and so it's an uphill battle. I don't know that I would say that, because we certainly would like for them to change their heart and mind, and I don't mean to down them at all.
RIP Agnès Varda: The most prominent woman who emerged from the French New Wave cinema era, died last month at the age of 90. Her last work, Faces Places is available on Netflix currently and (bring extra tissues) is an aesthetic and empathic triumph. She fought gender inequality in film as well — and challenged infamously opaque and old-school cinema powers, like Cannes and film schools, to be more inclusive. And as Manohla Dargis argues in her moving eulogy, she fostered gender equity simply by producing the art that she did.
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Each month we invite members to a virtual meeting through zoom.com with a member of our team. This month, the featured reporter is me (Erica Hensley!), which is why we're also extending the offer to you.
So, mark your calendar:
Join us from 12:30 - 1:10 p.m. on April 23 for the opportunity to ask me live questions about my work as an investigative reporter, WLBT collaborator and author of The Inform[H]er.