by Sarah Squires
When Margaret got home, her ex-husband Tom was waiting for her on the front steps; she could see his scowl before she even pulled into the driveway as he stood up, teetering, his fists clenched. She groaned, weighing how long it might take the police to arrive against how angry he would become if he saw her dialing for help, weighed her fading bruises, her son asleep in the back seat. With trembling fingers she pulled out her cell phone as Tom barreled toward the van.
It’s a kind of violence that hides on every block, sometimes a dark secret, muffled behind closed doors; sometimes, it is a violence punctuated with repeated cries for help. Experts know domestic violence is often underreported, but the statistics are still alarming: here in Winona County, a domestic assault or related case comes in every other day, with a full one-eighth of criminal justice cases related to violence in the home.
But armed with a new grant program, 13 partner agencies in Winona County, from prosecutors to dispatch workers to patrol officers, are coming together to provide the best response to domestic violence. They’re analyzing 30 years of research data and creating what’s known as a “Blueprint for Safety,” coordinating efforts to respond to domestic violence that make for the best outcomes -- safe families and communities.
First implemented in Duluth decades ago and more recently adopted by the city of St. Paul, the Blueprint for Safety program caught the eye of Assistant County Attorney Stephanie Nuttall, who attended a training program in 2010. After learning more about the program, Nuttall wrote a grant for Winona County, awarded $100,000 to implement the program from the Violence Against Women Act. Last week, dozens of county employees and others attended the first training for the new program, learning about how their roles in the system can be further coordinated to provide for the best response to domestic violence cases.
Everyone at the table
The questions asked by dispatch workers during that first 911 call can affect the way the case will unfold as it progresses from law enforcement to the courthouse, and then is managed by a probation worker. For example, when you get dispatch workers and patrol officers together to talk about what could improve the response system, you learn that police would like a bit more information when they respond to an incident. Instead of telling the officer there is a physical domestic assault at a certain address, dispatch can help by providing as many details about the assault as possible, whether there are weapons in the home, where they might be, and so on.
That was one example given by Denise Eng of Praxis International, consultant for the Blueprint for Safety program. She said that while working with the program in St. Paul, about 20 focus groups were conducted that included a variety of victims and their thoughts on how to improve the system. The resulting Blueprint for Safety that came from years of research is something of a template for other communities, and Winona County is currently perfecting its own unique blueprint of policies, goals and procedures.
Each custom-made blueprint has six underlying principles in common, the first is employing a collective approach to domestic violence.
Attention to context
“We used to think, years ago, that all violence is the same,” said Eng. “We know now it’s not. We want to understand what makes some cases more dangerous than others.”
Eng told attendees at the recent training that the system needs to recognize that all domestic violence is not the same. Intervention needs to be adjusted for what is actually occurring, rather than lumping dissimilar actions together. She gave the example of a woman who is mad at her husband and throws a shoe at him. Should that case be treated the same as a husband who continually batters his wife? The blueprint calls for us to differentiate between different kinds of violence.
“The first time that a battered woman calls 911 is likely not the last time,” said Eng. It’s important to start a positive relationship with the victim right from the beginning and establish that partnership over time.
Victims have a lot to weigh when they consider telling law enforcement officials about abuse. It’s important to understand battered women often experience violence within the context of other abusive behavior, and the way that you respond to her will help her see you as a resource, and will help with the next interaction with officials. Victims have a knowledge that we need, said Eng, and what is happening to her has to matter to us. “That has to matter to us, that really has to matter ot us - what is going on in her life.
“Victims are rarely in a position to tell us the whole story right now,” she continued. Some victims may be in increased danger for talking to law enforcement officials, and they must recognize that and understand that the full story will likely come out over multiple contacts. Officials need to wait for that window when she is ready to talk.
Three important questions to ask a victim: Are you afraid the person could seriously injure or kill you; is the violence increasing in severity or frequency; and what was the worst episode of violence you’ve experienced? Finding out what the level of violence is and whether there is a severe risk level is important in determining how to intervene in the case.
Sure and swift
consequences for abuse
“Batterers are often testing the boundaries,” said Eng. That’s why it’s important that consequences be predictable and happen soon.
Some victims fight back, said Eng, and officials need to recognize when a victim is returning the violence. Sometimes it’s not self defense, and officials have to work to contain that kind of violence without strengthening the batterer while doing so. What happens if the victim is arrested for fighting back? she asked. The batterer’s hand is strengthened. The next time he hits, and she wants to call 911, he says ‘go ahead, remember what happened last time?’
Messages of hope
Those who respond to domestic violence must work to counteract messages that batterers send to women. Often times, the perpetrator of violence in the home sends the message that the violence is the victim’s fault, that she is crazy, that no one will help her.
Eng told the group that the criminal justice system must work to send messages of help and accountability. To the victim, the message should be that there is help for her, she should keep using us and asking for help, and this is not her fault. To the perpetrator, the message should be that if you push the boundaries, we will tighten them, not widen them; if you stop abusing, we will help you; if you don’t stop, we will make you unhappy with consequences.
If there are children in the home, said Eng, it’s important to talk to them, especially if they witness abuse or an arrest. Effective messages for children include making sure they understand it’s not their fault, they can talk about what happened, and officials are there to help parents, not hurt them.
disparity of impact
“Not everybody is equally situated in society,” said Eng, therefore, different interventions may affect people and families differently.
Eng, who worked as a victim advocate for more than 25 years, said she will never forget something a victim told her once: “She said she was more afraid of being homeless than she was of being hit.”
Intervention and consequences have to be carefully thought out, said Eng. For example, a no contact order could work well in some cases, but in others, it could mean that there is no one to watch the kids when mom is at work, and could present a large financial hardship for some situations in which another approach might work well. What if an officer shows up on a domestic violence call and finds that the victim has a warrant for her arrest for shoplifting? asked Eng. What if the woman doesn’t want the no contact order, and the young man becomes a convicted felon for breaking the order?
Eng said she didn’t have all the answers, but reminded attendees that intervention should be well thought out for each case, and that it is important to try to avoid unintended consequences.
In St. Paul, before the Blueprint for Safety program, there were a number of cases where a suspect fled the scene before the police arrived, and Eng said that sometimes these were some of the more dangerous cases -- where the suspect knew the system and knew if he left that night, the consequences would be different. The police would write a report, and it would sit on an investigator’s desk until there was time to work on it. If there was enough information, it would be passed on to prosecutors, where it would often sit at the bottom of a big pile. Many of those cases were dismissed, and it took an average of 80 days for an offender to be charged -- if ever.
The blueprint program got 911 dispatch operators to ask questions about what the suspect was wearing, where they might go, and those cases were sorted and responded to based on a risk and danger assessment. Through the program, the response to those cases went from 80 days to 8, said Eng, and it wasn’t through hiring additional staff. The response, she said, was just more organized.
“Those are incredible numbers,” said project coordinator Tonya Van Tol, who said that this is the first time Winona County has had a coordinated, community response to the issue of domestic violence.
“We don’t anticipate magical changes overnight,” she said, “it’s going to take baby steps.” Soon, a domestic violence task force will begin evaluating cases and analyzing what happened, looking at whether the changes to the system are working as they’d hoped.
“Nationally, it’s known that domestic violence is underreported, and there are some that you never hear about, but I think that domestic violence is typically a high level percent of cases in a lot of communities,” said Van Tol, adding she didn’t think that Winona County has a higher rate of these cases than in other places.
Van Tol said that this is not just a family problem, and improvements to the way that the criminal justice system responds to domestic violence have positive ripple effects across the community. “It impacts everybody,” she said. “You might not know a victim, or you do know and you don’t know it’s happening. Employers deal with absenteeism, it’s a far reaching social problem. It’s not just a family issue, it’s a wide spectrum issue that we need to deal with.”