Hitting Close To Home Abuse Often Unpunished Experts Seek New Ways To Help Victims, Spouses
Second of two parts
These are ugly pictures. They show women with raw, swollen faces and haunted eyes.
Today, they are battered women. Tomorrow, they may be dead.
Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Mark Lindsey sifts uneasily through a fresh stack of cases. Eight out of 10 of these domestic-violence victims, he knows, will refuse to help him.
As a result, charges will be dropped. Wife-beaters won’t get needed treatment. The violence will continue.
Lindsey pauses at the police photograph of a young woman. She has been beaten at least 15 times by the same man. Her tormentor never has been convicted. She refuses to testify against him.
“I can barely recognize her,” he says. “Her face is so swollen, bruised…”
Will beating No. 16 send this woman to the morgue?
Lindsey won’t bet against it. He has seen it happen. Last year, three of the county’s 15 homicides were the result of escalating domestic violence.
“It makes us angry more than anything else because we know this might be our last chance to get through to this person. She deserves much better than this kind of treatment.”
Police and prosecutors aren’t alone in their frustration. Advocates for victims of domestic violence, experts and judges agree: The criminaljustice system fails to protect women and children from in-home abuse.
“The system doesn’t work,” says District Judge Richard White.
Despite unprecedented public attention to the problem, fueled in part by the O.J. Simpson murder case, the vast majority of domesticviolence cases fall apart within days of the arrest, statistics show.
When batterers admit their guilt, only a relative handful receive meaningful treatment.
Police arrested about 2,500 suspected batterers on misdemeanor assault charges last year in Spokane County. In 83 percent of those cases, charges were dropped.
Last year, only 56 men from Spokane County enrolled in statecertified batterer’s treatment. Fewer graduated.
More than 400 others agreed - in exchange for charges against them being dismissed - to attend angermanagement classes, which experts say do little to prevent domestic violence.
“It’s like treating cancer with Tylenol,” complains Carolyn Morrison, director of the YWCA’s batterers’ treatment program.
While Morrison lobbies for meaningful treatment, newly elected Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Sweetser wants to be tougher with abusers.
Sweetser reshuffled his budget to create a domestic-violence prosecution team, featuring Lindsey and another deputy. He also is drumming up support for a unique Domestic Violence Court, where first-time batterers would get specialized supervision and treatment.
One of Sweetser’s goals is to aggressively pursue “victimless prosecution,” which experts say is the best way to hold batterers accountable and protect victims.
“The message is you can’t manipulate the system,” Sweetser says. “When the abuser asks the question, `Who is responsible for my arrest?’ they’re going to look in the mirror and see only one person - themselves.”
There are many reasons why victims won’t testify.
Some still love their abusers and don’t want to betray them; some are concerned about how their children will react; some fear revenge or have been physically intimidated against going to court. Others are in hiding.
The idea of going to trial without a victim may sound strange, but in San Diego and Seattle, authorities laud the get-tough approach. Conviction rates have doubled, mainly through a flood of guilty pleas.
“We know domestic violence will continue if there’s no intervention, and it gets worse and worse. There’s an average of five police contacts before each homicide,” says Doug Humphreys, a senior prosecutor with the San Diego city attorney’s office.
Lives are being saved, he says.
Ten years ago, 30 percent of that California city’s homicides resulted from domestic violence, the national average. Last year, however, the percentage had shrunk to 5 percent.
Seattle’s victimless prosecution effort began in November. Five prosecutors and three advocates work closely with a special police detail.
Police are told to approach victims assuming they may be uncooperative later. They immediately ask them to sign medical-release forms so they can’t block access to important information later.
Officers gather as much evidence as they can: bloody or torn clothing, photographs, children’s statements, tapes of calls to 911, broken dishes, “excited utterances” of the suspect or victim.
“It’s very important to hold these abusers accountable for what they’re doing, and often the victim isn’t in a position to make that choice,” says Lynn Moberly, who heads the new domestic-violence unit in the King County prosecutor’s office.
“They’re in love with the guy, or there are children involved. But the statistics show it’ll happen again - more severely - if we don’t take action.”
Not long ago, police rarely would arrest a man for beating his wife or girlfriend.
“It was considered `family business,”’ says Paul Meissner, court liaison officer for the Spokane Police Department.
Today, however, Washington law requires officers to make arrests if there is probable cause of domestic violence, such as visible injuries.
But in most Spokane cases, the defendant spends only one night in jail before being released on personal recognizance.
Often, the victim is at the prosecutor’s office the next day, insisting charges be dropped.
Victims strongly are encouraged to attend a 90-minute domesticviolence awareness class where they are given information about community resources for battered women.
Tears flow during these classes, but rarely do the victims change their minds.
When it comes to frustration, prosecutors say domestic-violence cases have no equal.
They require more preparation than the average bar fight, and they always seethe with emotion. Even victims who have broken free from abusers frequently get cold feet.
“It’s real high burnout,” says Deputy Prosecutor Dannette Allen. “A lot of times, right before we’re supposed to go to trial, we find she’s back living with him. Or we can’t find her because she’s in hiding.”
Some defense lawyers argue that many domestic-violence cases deserve to crumble; they had no business being filed.
“Ninety-nine percent of them are minor stuff: pushing and shoving, hair-pulling and slapping,” claims Assistant Public Defender Dick Sanger.
But the YWCA’s Morrison says the cases shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum. The simplest fight between husband and wife often is part of an escalating pattern of violence.
The answer, she says, is increased public education, tougher prosecution and longer treatment of abusers.
Morrison’s program, Alternatives to Domestic Violence, is the only state-certified treatment program for batterers in the Inland Northwest.
Treatment and follow-up counseling span 1 years, with men attending weekly group sessions for the first six months. They are lively, frank discussions, with each man forced to face his own harmful attitudes toward women.
Men like Robert, 55, who wants to save his 14-year marriage.
“I came here with a chip on my shoulder,” says Robert, who asks not to be identified. “My wife and I were fighting one day, and I got arrested. I didn’t think I needed treatment. Then I realized I had a problem that needed straightening.”
While no specific figures are available, Morrison claims long-term counseling is far more effective in controlling domestic abuse than anger-management classes, which last only about six weeks.
“You send a batterer to angermanagement and you get a calm batterer,” she says. “In some ways, that person is even more dangerous than before.”
“Anger is not the problem,” agrees Joan Zegree, who treats batterers in Seattle. “What these men do looks like anger and out-of-control rage, but they really are controlling and dominating another person.”
Ending violent and abusive behavior requires struggling with long-held beliefs and behaviors that are difficult for men to give up, Zegree says.
That’s the goal of Bellevue’s innovative domestic-violence program. Defendants, with the victims’ agreement, avoid trials by agreeing to counseling and community service work.
“We’re trying to address the underlying problem,” says Bellevue Prosecutor Susan Irwin. “We’re more concerned about that than obtaining convictions. It’s a community approach.”
Five or six people attend the defendant’s first court appearance, including treatment providers and a victim advocate.
A speedy, broad-based response is critical, Irwin says, because batterers tend to go through a remorse period after an incident. That’s when they are most amenable to treatment.
Making a similar effort in Spokane won’t be easy, particularly during a period of tight money for social services.
But allowing the system to fail - and the bloodshed to continue - is unacceptable, says Lindsey, the deputy prosecutor.
For motivation, he remembers the battered faces of three women who sat in his office not long ago. Each promised to end the relationship and the abuse. Each, however, refused to help him press criminal charges.
“Now they’re dead.”
MEMO: This is a sidebar that appeared with this story: Many cases, few convictions 3,320 domestic violence cases were closed by the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office last year. 565 cases ended in convictions, only 20 after trials. The rest were guilty pleas. 10 cases ended in acquittals after trials. In 432 cases, treatment was required, with the cases to be dismissed afterwards. In 2,323 cases, charges were dropped outright.
This is a sidebar that appeared with this story: Many cases, few convictions 3,320 domestic violence cases were closed by the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office last year. 565 cases ended in convictions, only 20 after trials. The rest were guilty pleas. 10 cases ended in acquittals after trials. In 432 cases, treatment was required, with the cases to be dismissed afterwards. In 2,323 cases, charges were dropped outright.