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Testimony to Connecticut General Assembly's Judiciary Committee

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Good Afternoon. My name is Andrea Dahms. I am an advocate with the Domestic Violence Crisis Center in Stamford and Norwalk. On behalf of DVCC, I would like to begin by thanking Senator Coleman, Representative Fox and the members of the Judiciary Committee for giving us the opportunity to speak before you today and for their hard work on the proposed legislation. I would also like to thank Speaker Donovan, Representative Flexer, and the members of the Speaker’s Domestic Violence Task Force for their leadership and commitment to a continued examination of Connecticut’s response to domestic violence. Advocates from around the state are very excited that so many of the Task Force’s thoughtful recommendations were incorporated into Raised Bills 6629 and 1220. As an advocate who works with victims on a daily basis, helping them navigate the criminal and civil courts, I am confident that much of the proposed legislation will increase our ability to keep victims safe, and at the same time, send a stronger message to batterers that domestic violence is a crime and will not be tolerated.

You have just heard my colleague, Katie Pawlik, outline our support for the proposed amendments to the Family Violence Education Program in Raised Bill 6629, Section 4, subsection (h). Currently, the statute makes any offender who does not have a prior conviction for a family violence crime eligible for the Family Violence Education Program. This program is an approximately nine week education based program that is meant for first offenders. However, because conviction is the threshold, not a prior arrest, offenders are all too often granted the Family Violence Education Program on a second, third or fourth arrest for a family violence crime. This happens because the offenders are allowed to dispose of their first and sometimes second and third family violence arrests by engaging in either private therapy or participating in an Alternative to Incarceration program for what’s referred to as an “earned” nolle. In support of the amendment to the Family Violence Education Program eligibility statute that would preclude offenders who have previously been arrested for a family violence crime, I would like to take a moment to give you a picture of how the current statute plays out in practice, and why this amendment is so critical.

The first defendant first came into the criminal justice system charged after having attacked his wife, pulling her hair and banging her head against a wall. He was sent to a cognitive skills class at AIC for an “earned” nolle. Two years later, he was back. This second incident involved not only physical violence, but a loaded firearm as well. Because the first case had not resulted in a conviction, he was eligible for and granted the Family Violence Education Program to resolve this second family violence case, and the charges were subsequently dismissed. Despite this victim having come forward twice to report the abuse, the defendant has no criminal record for domestic violence.

Our next defendant first came into the criminal justice system after slapping his wife hard enough that responding officers were able to take photographs. He was sent to private counseling for an “earned” nolle. The second time, he was charged with having threatened to kill his wife, in the presence of their daughter. This time around, he was sent to a cognitive skills class at Alternatives to Incarceration for yet another “earned” nolle – this despite the fact that the daughter disclosed to the police that she has seen her father hit her mother in the past. Without the proposed changes, when next this defendant comes before the criminal court for a family violence crime, he will still be eligible for the Family Violence Education Program and a subsequent dismissal.

Currently, there is a defendant who was allowed to complete individual therapy for an earned nolle on two family violence cases. He was sent to the Family Violence Education Program to get a dismissal on his third family violence case. He is back in our courtroom, a year and a half later, after having threatened his wife with the hand gun he has a concealed carry permit for.

The systemic failure demonstrated here is in sending candidates to this program who are beyond the scope of what this program was designed to do. The change proposed in Raised Bill No. 6629 would ensure that only first time offenders are granted the benefit of the Family Violence Education Program and would signal to both offenders and victims that domestic violence is a crime, and is going to be treated like a crime.

A second critical change to the Family Violence Education Program eligibility criteria currently proposed by Raised Bill No. 6629 is limiting that first offender program to misdemeanor crimes. Currently, defendants are allowed to access the benefits of the program despite being charged with D felonies. The most common D felonies we see on our dockets are Violation of Protection and Restraining Orders, Strangulation 2nd, and Assault 2nd. We are seeing defendants charged with these crimes being sent to the 9 week educational FVEP program far too often. I would like to provide a few examples of real cases to illustrate the need for the proposed amendment.

One particular defendant was charged with two counts of Strangulation 2nd, five counts of Assault 3rd, four counts of Disorderly Conduct and Threatening 2nd for having assaulted his wife on multiple occasions. All three incidents were reported in a single statement provided by the victim and were charged in a single information. In the first incident, the defendant thrashed his wife over the course of a 12 hour period. He held her down on the floor, kneeling on her arms and repeatedly smothered her with a pillow. When he did let her up, he continuously drew her to her feet or knees and threw her into furniture and against the walls. She had swelling and rash lines all over her body. These injuries were witnessed by members of her family the next day. The second incident involved him slapping her so hard she fell to the floor, then dragging her across the room by one leg. It was after this incident that she reached out to the local victim services agency seeking counseling and safety planning services. When he next got aggressive with her, she immediately called the police. The defendant applied for and was granted the Family Violence Education Program over the objection of both the victim and the prosecutor handling these cases and despite the fact that he was charged with two counts of felony strangulation. She will now be unable to obtain a Standing Criminal Protection Order.

And, we are all unfortunately aware of the Ozdemir domestic violence homicide in West Haven last year. Here was an offender who beat and kicked his wife and threatened to kill her. He caused her such serious physical injury during the assault that he was charged with Assault 2nd (a felony). His wife expressed to officers that she was terrified that he would make good on his threat and actually kill her. Despite this, he was granted the Family Violence Education Program.

The level of violence exemplified by these three cases is far beyond what the Family Violence Education Program is capable of addressing, as currently structured. Once an offender is granted the Family Violence Education Program, they attend one session a week for nine weeks. These sessions are an hour and a half and an educational group format. This program is not treatment. Not only would highly educated experts who study domestic violence agree that these cases are outside the scope of what’s appropriate for that program, so would the program facilitators.

Sending these offenders to the Family Violence Education Program is not intervention, it’s merely case management. The proposed amendment would change that, causing offenders who commit crimes with this level of violence and lethality ineligible for the Family Violence Education Program. Advocates from around the state are excited to see that this amendment is being considered and are encouraging you to support the amendment as currently drafted.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak before you today.