By Leslee Kulba- “It’s a disgrace that we have to talk about this kind of treatment of other human beings,” remarked Buncombe County Chair David Gantt, “But we do.
The comments followed a presentation on the county’s new Comprehensive Plan to Address Domestic Violence. Commissioner Holly Jones can get a chunk of the credit for getting the proverbial ball rolling about a year ago. Jones learned a lot about the problem while working with the YWCA. Then, as she recollected, “it struck very close to home” last July when the daughter of a Buncombe County employee died from an act of domestic violence.
The unnamed girl was counted as one of eight victims of domestic violence homicide in Buncombe that year. It may sound like a small statistic to anybody who did not know and love the victims. So, consider this: Every day in the United States, 3-4 women are killed by their intimate partners.
In FY 2013, in Buncombe County alone, 400 cases of domestic violence were investigated by Child Protective Services, public safety officers responded to 7230 calls involving domestic violence, Helpmate served 1848 clients and helped 1230 file domestic violence protective orders, and Pisgah Legal Services assisted with 882 court cases. Sadly, some of those caught in the trap of domestic violence may prefer to be among the dead. The last place many victims of domestic violence homicide are seen publicly is the emergency room.
“I admire the courage of women who break away, and ache for those still trapped,” shared Jones. It has been said that escaping domestic violence is easy: There’s the front door, and the back door. But victims don’t see it like that. They may be dependent on their abuser for material or emotional support. Love can be so forgiving. Then, there are the kids, fear of retaliation, and loss of employment. Escaping from domestic violence is the number-one reason women give for showing up at shelters for the homeless.
According to materials published by Buncombe County’s new eNOugh campaign, “Domestic violence is a growing problem across the nation. It is the leading cause of injury to women – more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined, and the seventh leading cause of death.”
It doesn’t happen so much in the dark, so much as meddling in domestic squabbles remains a taboo. Compounding the situation is reading those claiming to be victims correctly. Law enforcement has to decide if a woman is hypochondriac, hyper-sensitive, delusional, or attention-seeking. They have no reason to suspect problems with those too afraid to cry out because they’ve been battered into doubting their own perceptions or they fear what others will think. Officers normally have enough to keep them busy as it is. Then, the perps are usually good at charming their way around the authorities and their victims’ hearts for another round.
We would all prefer to forget the horrific scars left in the pages of history by Jeffrey Dahmer. We wish we’d never heard the sicketating story of the man the police returned to him. Of course the victim’s reports of nauseating abuses made him sound like a lunatic, and of course, smooth as ever, Dahmer convinced the police he’d take care of the silly little guy.
But there are other stories. In literature Jones shared, one can read of an instance where a woman was killed after the police “could not verify the existence of a restraining order.” The department was short-staffed, too. Sometimes judges are flippant. One author still worries about a woman he knew whose oppressor had been let go on a technicality. An article in a 2012 issue of the “Domestic Violence Report” states, “Police mishandling of calls is not unusual in domestic violence cases.”
Where Can I Turn for Peace?
In Jones’ search for answers, she turned to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 2007 and 2008, that state saw a rash of domestic violence homicides. A Governor’s Council to Address Sexual and Domestic Violence concluded, “Law enforcement responses alone are clearly insufficient.”
One scholar looking for answers was quite aware that goody-goody public policy analysts often find their good intentions reduced to “chatter.” After all, how could anybody possibly predict when, in a sudden rage of passion, a normal guy “just snaps”?
Jacquelyn C. Campbell, dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Nursing, is of the opinion that around 90 percent of instances of domestic violence homicide are nothing like that. In fact, she sees enough similarity in events leading to the murders to make the perps’ actions look rather cookie-cutter. And, while friends, neighbors, and coworkers think it is the polite thing to hide their heads in the sand, they often have a pretty good idea about what’s going on. Campbell advocates for the use of danger assessments that query potential victims about high-risk factors.
Campbell and others see enough patterns to call the homicides predictable enough to prevent. They used to watch patterns of abuse unfold and escalate. A need to control others often manifested itself in actions like slashing tires and, very commonly, strangulation.
Danger assessments are believed to be playing a huge part in reducing instances of domestic violence homicides in some Massachusetts jurisdictions to zilch. And so, like any good idea, it has its detractors. Scholars have actually argued that the questions are invasive, ignorant of human quirks, and an infringement of the victim’s right to choose between life and love.
Also standing in the way of helping the helpless is the US Supreme Court. In a 2005 case, Castle Rock v. Gonzales, the court ruled 5-2 that, borrowing from Wikipedia, “A town and its police department could not be sued . . . for failing to enforce a restraining order, which had led to the murder of a woman’s three children by her estranged husband.” Human rights advocates remain outraged, claiming the powers that be care more about protecting a person’s money than his life.
Another problem with “the system” is that it often punishes the victim. It is the battered one who has to quit her job, friends and family; yank the kids out of school; and hole up in a shelter. As Buncombe County Assistant Manager Mandy Stone noted, it is the perpetrator who should be contained. The system should help the victim be safe, and even allow him or her to pursue a normal life.
One way to do this is to slap a GPS system on the perpetrators and connect it to an alert system that tells the potential victim and somebody serving somewhat like a caseworker when he has crossed into a zone protected by a restraining order. Some jurisdictions have added cameras in their alert systems. Complaints about violating the rights of the perpetrators are shot down by arguments that in this country, one forfeits his rights as soon as he infringes those of another person. Some jurisdictions have had to review their laws to impose stiffer penalties for stalking and other threatening behaviors that traditionally have not qualified as sufficient cause to take people off the streets.
Jones assures that Buncombe County has already cleared the hurdles. “GPS is currently being utilized in Buncombe County for other offenses. So, yes. It is authorized.”
Funding could be another problem. A GPS system could cost $15 a day for one person. Up in Connecticut, Alvin Notice’s daughter was violently stabbed to death when her ex-boyfriend violated a restraining order. Notice became convinced his daughter could have been saved by such a device, once he learned how good the technology was. He lobbied the Connecticut legislature to authorize their use. But the lawmakers were worried about the cost.
At that, Notice ran out of the legislative chambers into a feeding frenzy of media types and told them, “My daughter’s life was worth more than fifteen dollars a day.” Reporters bit, and started asking legislators about their priorities. Jones said she expects the commissioners will be approving a line item of about $100,000 to pay for 20 monitors in the next budget cycle.
Back to Buncombe –
It sounds like a great idea. It’s another rare moment where government steps up to its number-one mission. Rather than raising taxes to hire planners to take your property rights away, or give a sweetheart deal to your competitor down the road – government is reaching out to protect the innocents, liberate the captive, and defend law and order.
But what would a government program be without the sloganeering? Last Tuesday, when the commissioners received the report on the Domestic Violence Plan, they also approved a Juvenile Crime Prevention Council County Plan. With the commissioners’ acceptance, the state will award $508,064 to various county programs. But in return, those programs must show they have mighty bureaucracies that have bylaws, bimonthly meetings, diversity in leadership, and evaluation components.
That report told how kids are already suffering from drug addiction, and some are already guilty of sexual abuse. They come from broken homes where the parent, if they are lucky enough to have one, is an addict or has a criminal record. The kids need help, and they will get it if the programs are staffed by people who can connect with a kid or two in spite of the requisite human measurements and documentation.
People with good hearts trying to embark on helpful careers these days often find themselves in a maze of complicating the simple, treating humans more like material for processing with PC protocols than children of an all-wise Creator. And so, not a few observers have remarked that government is in the business of creating jobs for bureaucrats. The domestic violence program the commissioners approved is different. It has teeth. It starts with danger assessments, and it promises to be more proactive about prevention.
During the presentation to the commissioners, staffers explained that they wanted to fix the system where victims might fall through the cracks. Since the hardest thing for a victim to do is to call for supportive services, police officers are now trained to place the call while the offender is watching so they won’t be able to, as many do, use her call for help as another excuse for abuse. The next day, the victim will receive a followup safety check, and the perp is going to know about that ahead of time, too.
It is wrong to assume victims know who to call, or to have the courage to see straight. Coercively-controlled women are often paralyzed with fear. Support systems in other states assist victims with anything from helping make phone calls, providing a safe place to run to or crash out, loaning money, providing transportation, or accompanying the victims when they go to court.
But the offenders aren’t going to be hung out to dry entirely. After all, most of them are victims of abuse themselves. They’re only acting out the only roles they know.
Another facet of the program is the team. It’s an overused buzzword that has long overstayed its touchy-feely welcome. But victim advocate Kelly Dunne, who was interviewed in some of the materials Jones reviewed, likes the idea of getting service providers to share notes. She described a leap from “circular discussions of system improvements” to action that can change lives.
At the commissioners’ meeting, Jones put offenders on notice. This, she said, is going to be a zero-tolerance community. 911 still works for any emergency, but for men and women seeking help and direction for themselves or others, the county recommends contacting helpmateonline.org or 828-254-0516.