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Standing Up to Domestic Violence

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The following Op-Ed by Rachelle Kucera Mehra, Executive Director of Domestic Violence Crisis Center, appeared in the Connecticut Post, Stamford Advocate and the Greenwich Times on Jan. 24, 2010.

Since Christmas Eve, the highly publicized murders of three women and the hospitalization with severe injuries of two others have put the spotlight on domestic violence in Connecticut. These five cases made the headlines, but the public never hears about thousands of others. In the past three weeks alone, one of the clients of our agency, the Domestic Violence Crisis Center (DVCC), was murdered, and police filed charges for the attempted murder of two other clients.

Just this Sunday, a 25-year-old woman, who took shelter with her two young children in our Stamford SafeHouse for several weeks in December and January, was murdered in West Haven. We had worked for hours educating her on safety planning. But despite having a protective order against her husband, despite calling the police and having him arrested when he assaulted her, despite calling them again after he made bond and came after her a second time that same night, and despite the fact that the police knew her husband’s record of domestic abuse, she was unable to defend herself when he came after her a third time and apparently shot her before turning the gun on himself. The three assaults played out over a period of just 12 hours. 

Countless articles, editorials and blogs have condemned the recent incidents of domestic violence and wondered how they could have been prevented. As domestic violence professionals, we believe that social, medical and law enforcement agencies should provide a standardized checklist of comprehensive services available to victims who are in danger from a current or past abuser and there should be better information sharing between the legal justice system and domestic violence service providers.

  • The list starts with safety planning, including such basic questions as: Are you safe now? If not, how can we help make you safe? How can we best work together to keep you safe in the future.
  • Second, it is crucial that all Connecticut domestic violence shelters are staffed around the clock. Thanks to some federal funds distributed by Gov. M Jodi Rell’s office, several shelters, including the DVCC SafeHouse in Norwalk, now have 24/7 staffing. Round the clock staffing should be extended to all shelters in the state. Evidence shows that victims feel safer and are more likely to remain at a shelter until they have a safe place to go when staff members are available to talk with them during the night as well as in the daytime.    
  • Third, the courts need to make sure they are listening to domestic violence victim advocates who work on behalf of victims who come through the legal system. Often they are able to best ascertain how much danger a victim is in and to assist her to seek legal help as well as counseling and shelter.
  • Fourth, there needs to be effective and ongoing coordination between domestic violence agencies and health care providers, starting with emergency rooms. To this end, the DVCC  has developed the first Medical Advocacy Project in the state that will provide a model program for domestic violence agencies and health care providers statewide.   
  • Fifth, it is imperative that law enforcement personnel carefully check records of offenders before allowing them to post bond and that they coordinate with local domestic violence agencies and make efforts to ascertain if a victim has been in touch with or is a client of other domestic violence agencies in or outside the state.

Former chief probation officer Andrew Klein, senior research analyst at Advocates for Human Potential, proposed several additional recommendations to the recently created Connecticut legislative task force charged with studying better ways to prevent domestic violence in the National Bulletin on Domestic Violence Prevention. They include:

  • reducing significantly the high number of dual arrests for domestic violence incidents in Connecticut in which both the victim and offender are arrested (known as dual arrests);
  • encouraging courts to prosecute offenders on assault charges rather than the less serious charges of breach of peace or disorderly conduct;
  • following through with convictions and prison sentences for abusers;
  • and looking much more critically at diversion batterer programs that statistically show limited positive results.

Connecticut departs glaringly from the rest of the country when it comes to domestic violence dual arrests. In 2007, 20% of domestic violence arrests in Connecticut were dual arrests, as opposed to less than 2% nationally, and only a third of domestic violence arrests in Connecticut were for assault, compared to two-thirds nationally.

We hear far too often that domestic violence is complicated and messy and that it cannot be entirely rooted out. But that is no excuse for failing to work toward the best possible solution to prevent one of the most serious crimes in our country. Action matters and yields tangible results. In Stamford, for instance, the DVCC has worked with the Special Victims Unit led by Lt. Jim Matheny of the Stamford Police Department, as a result of which dual arrest rates have fallen from nearly 30 % to single digits in under two years.

In these rough economic times, taxpayers are understandably leery of new initiatives. But in this case that is a false assumption as the cost of inaction is far greater than that of action. Largely because of the costs and impact of domestic violence, the average cost of health care services for women exceeds twice the average cost for men, according to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2008.

If better safeguards are overlooked, if batterers are not held accountable much earlier and with more serious consequences than they historically have been, and if systems are not in place to consistently help the abused and hold the abuser accountable, then we are condemned to more of the same painful headlines of the past few weeks. 

Connecticut Post Op Ed