Reporting domestic violence a challenge for victims

  • By Megan Guza
    Point Park News Service
December 27, 2013
Washington County assistant district attorney Traci McDonald, right, talks with her staff about the new STOP Violence Against Women grant. From left are Shelley Karl, Max Oravetz, Beverly Ashton and Kristin Clingerman. - Mike Jones / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Law enforcement issues pose unique challenges to victims of domestic abuse, and to the agencies that try to help them, in Western Pennsylvania’s rural communities.

“I get a headache from it (law enforcement) every day,” said Lauren Lacey, manager of the Fayette County Domestic Violence Shelter. “Honestly, the general consensus from women, and even men – they feel they were treated as the perpetrator and not the victim.”

Some abuse victims, she said in a telephone interview, have been arrested for calling the police.

“Even recently, I had somebody tell me they threatened to arrest her if she called back,” she said. “A lot of women don’t have an outlet, don’t feel safe – they don’t feel safe even with police.”

Janice, who asked that her real name not be used, lives in a small town of just under 2,600 in Washington County. She says her partner of nearly 20 years abused her for most of them. When she did call police, she said, they didn’t help.

One night, years into the abuse, she came home to find her partner cooking cocaine in their kitchen with a friend.

“I said, ‘You promised me. You promised you’d stay away from the drugs,’” she said during a recent telephone interview. “He kicked me and threw me on the ground. He shoved my head in the cabinet and started slamming it.”

So she ran, she said, but not before calling police. She said the police told her that because she’d been the one to leave the house, she would have to find a place to stay.

“I walked into town and hid,” said the 56-year-old deli clerk, adding that her boyfriend and his pal came looking for her. “I was hiding in bushes.”

She went to a local bar, which had stopped serving for the night, and hid inside. She said state police found her and chastised her not just for being in the bar, but for scarring her partner.

“They said he had marks on him, which, if he did, was because I retaliated,” she said. “They said, ‘Because you have no marks on you, you have to leave the house.’”

When she finally decided she had to get away from her boyfriend, she would go to her sister’s house, something she said police would use to side with him.

“They would tell me, ‘You have a place to go – he doesn’t. He has to stay here, and you have to leave since you have somewhere,’” she said.

Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone said law enforcement officials here have made domestic violence cases a priority and pointed out the STOP Violence Against Women Act grant the county received in 2013.

The purpose of the STOP grant (Services-Training-Officers-Prosecutors) is to strengthen the criminal justice system’s response to violence against women and to enhance services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

With the STOP grant, the county has hired a detective and a paralegal to help domestic abuse victims as their cases make their way through the legal system.

“Our last two district attorneys have shown that they have a significant interest in making sure domestic violence cases are prosecuted. But they are among the most difficult cases to handle because of all of the dynamics that go on outside of the case,” said Traci McDonald, assistant district attorney who coordinates the STOP grant program.

At a recent law enforcement training session through STOP, Washington County law enforcement officers received training on issues from the contents of a rape kit to tracing cellphone calls and getting subpoenas in domestic violence cases.

“We try to point victims to services and make sure they know there are services out there to help them,” said McDonald. “The more you are able to stay in touch with victims and help them through the process, the better the chance for prosecution.”

There are, however, challenges. Often, there is little evidence outside of testimony, so the case can become a he-said, she-said matter.

Also, victims might drop a protection from abuse order, or resume a relationship with the abuser, which complicates the case.

“If you have a drunken driver, you can take a sobriety test. If you have a burglary, you might have fingerprints or other evidence. But when you have a relationship, there are a whole other host of variables involved,” said McDonald. “That’s why we have the STOP grant, to try to provide the best services possible to victims.”

State police Trooper Robin Mungo said domestic violence cases are not overlooked.

“We realize in the heat of the moment that people can do just about anything. Every incident is a priority for us and that does not exclude domestic violence,” said Mungo, noting that at least two troopers respond to domestic violence calls because of the unpredictability and volatility of those situations.

Mungo says one of the problems law enforcement officers encounter with domestic situations is that frequently the victim does not follow through with prosecution and resumes a relationship with the perpetrator.

“But at the end of the day, our ultimate goal is to make sure that anyone who’s been a victim of a crime is protected and that the perpetrator is arrested,” said Mungo. “Our officers encourage them to follow through and point them to resources. You can’t give up because whether it’s the first or the fourth or the fifth time, it might be the time that the person says, ‘Im done.’ So you have to stay with it.”

Still, some feel like the deck is stacked against abuse victims and that some women risk their housing security by calling the police.

Norristown made headlines this past summer when the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit challenging a borough ordinance it said punishes tenants requiring police assistance for domestic disputes.

The ordinance acts as a “three strikes” law: Landlords housing tenants who call the police at least three times during a four-month period face fines or citations. It also allows the landlord to evict a tenant who does so.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Norristown resident Lakisha Briggs, who said police were called after her ex-boyfriend physically abused her. Briggs told the ACLU that when police arrived, they told her this was her “third strike,” and they planned to suggest to her landlord he evict her.

Other times, Lacey said, police do not have the training or the knowledge to properly handle domestic violence cases.

“It’s probably the biggest issue we have here – law enforcement,” she said. “They’re not educated. They’re hard to approach about getting the education. They don’t know about the protection-from-abuse process. A lot of issues that we have are with the police.”

That’s not to say that rural law enforcement is any less dedicated or responsible, said Denise Scotland, who oversees the Rural Advocacy Task Force at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Harrisburg.

“It’s the circumstances that make it a little more difficult,” she said during a recent telephone interview. “In small, rural, close-knit communities, it is a case of ‘everyone knows everyone.’

“Often, the police will know both the victim and perpetrator,” she said. “They might try to do some other intervention than a PFA or take his guns – they all hunt together and he needs those.

“It’s not to say the police are violating the law, but there’s more reluctance.”

That reluctance often transfers to the victims of the violence, which makes them reluctant to call in law enforcement.

Mark Pompe, chief of the East Bethlehem Township police department in Washington County, said his small department runs into that issue.

“It’s hard,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “Sometimes we arrest both. Sometimes we arrest the guy and see later the guy was in the right and she just wanted him out of the house because she was messing around or vice versa.”

Pompe said there have been situations where his department has filed charges in domestic violence cases, only to have them dropped at the preliminary hearing because the couple are back together and don’t want to prosecute.

However, Pompe said he takes domestic violence cases seriously, and his department addresses every PFA and follows the judge’s order “to a T.”

He said officers would welcome the opportunity for additional training, especially in domestic violence. “Officers just jump on it,” he said.

A 2011 report by the Rural Assistance Center at the University of North Dakota says the close-knit nature of such communities lends itself to less reporting from survivors.

“Relationships or familiarity with health-care providers or law enforcement officials may affect victims’ willingness to discuss abuse or violence,” said the report. “At the same time, relationships with the abuser could limit how much a claim of abuse is looked into.”

Westmoreland County victim Alexis (not her real name), who was abused by her boyfriend in Bucks County in the 1980s, said this played into her decision not to seek assistance.

“We shared friends. My mother lent him money. He knew many of the local cops and politicians,” she said. “He was from Reading, and I was raised in Detroit – an outsider. Most important, it just wasn’t done.”

Scotland said an “I don’t want to damage his entire reputation” mentality also stops some women from reporting the abuse. On top of that, she said, the prospect of seeing the person who is probably the family provider taken away is scary to some women.

“Some have joint ownership on farms or of livestock or businesses together,” she said. “They don’t want to report because of the potential ramifications of that person getting hauled off to jail. They’re left running a business or caring for a farm by themselves.”

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