November 7, 2006
There’s Safety in Numbers: One Washington County Levy may mean Life or Death for Some
By Sherry Harbert
Domestic violence does not begin with a fist rammed into the victim’s face. If it did, it would be considered straight assault and it would be easier to stop. Domestic violence is personal. It is built around hidden layers that even close friends or family members outside the home would not initially recognize. Before the bruises and broken bones, the methodical control of every action, the disregard for any opinion and the accusations that always put the blame on the victim slowly overtake the home. It continues to overtake the victim until there is no clear beginning or end.
Only when it reaches a flash point can someone else intervene. By the time law enforcement is brought in, a multi-faceted approach is necessary to end the multi-faceted stages that hid the violence in the first place. Of all the crimes committed in Washington County, domestic abuse carries top priority for law enforcement and the courts. The county has worked hard to address domestic violence in a comprehensive program that involves most all county agencies. It may end up as the next victim if funding for the programs end with a no vote on the county’s renewal public safety levy, Nov. 7.
Maintaining Safety Inside and Outside the Home
For District Attorney Robert Hermann, “the coordinated effort of county agencies is the only way to approach domestic violence.” Hermann and other county staff traveled around the county over the last two months hosting county service fairs with information booths at farmer’s markets and schools throughout the county to provide the public a chance to ask questions and learn about the agencies and their work. Representatives and volunteers with the Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney, Probation and Parole, Work Release Center, Juvenile Department and Adult Drug Court were present at each event.
“The DA’s office is real aggressive on prosecution in domestic violence cases,” said Hermann, with the final information event at Tigard High School. “We’ve seen a downward turn in domestic violence homicides over the last several years.” Hermann said the county’s work from all levels has helped bring those numbers down.
“It is a whole partnership, from beginning to end,” said Gina Skinner, deputy district attorney who prosecutes many of the domestic violence cases in the county, during an early October event at the Orenco Farmers’ Market. “The levy just maintains services we currently provide.” Washington County maintains a network of public services, including operating the county jail, the Adult Drug Court, juvenile outreach and prevention services, victim assistance and advocacy, monitoring offenders outside of incarceration and livability issues. They include methamphetamine, gangs, fraud and identity theft, major crimes and SWAT.
Skinner described the operations within Washington County as “an inter-agency team.” “It’s an umbrella where we all work together,” she said. “If we have to scale down, the effect would impact everyone, from property crimes, ID theft, to supervision, treatment and counseling.” The county terms their focus as livability issues. Skinner said the county system encompasses law enforcement from the offender to the victim and the outcomes from jail, probation, treatment and counseling. “If any one of the pieces fall by the wayside, all of it fails,” she said.
Ron Clark, a probation and parole officer with Washington County, said supervision is vital. “It lowers repeat crimes,” said Clark. “We work to build partnerships. We get them to see they are responsible for their behavior, they need to make decisions and act upon them.” Clark said the priority is to get individuals out of the criminal justice system. To do that, the county must oversee a host of rehabilitation methods like treatment for drugs or alcohol, domestic violence counseling and anger management.
Clark said about 40 officers work on between 85-100 caseloads at any given time in the county. That just includes the high and medium risk offenders. Clark, who has worked as an officer for 19 years, says biggest problem in the county is methamphetamine. “It has elevated demand on all levels of social services, from housing, treatment and child abuse.” Clark and the other officers monitor each offender's actions, including conducting drug and alcohol testing.
Skinner said the focus of the county is to work with people. One of ways is through the county’s new Drug Court, which deals with the hardcore drug users and those who would benefit from treatment and counseling, thus lessening re-offenses. It means working directly with offenders, monitoring their progress and offering treatment means less incarceration time. It is the supervision, treatment and counseling programs of the county that would be most in jeopardy, should the local option levy fail.
Working the Case after the Offense
For Clark, supervision is vital to maintain progress. “The community doesn’t realize how bad the meth epidemic is because all law enforcement work hard to arrest the situation,” said Clark. “The fact that we work very hard to protect the community by locking up the criminals and rehabilitating them is important so we all can live in a safe community,” said Clark. That sentiment is what spurred the name for the levy. Clark and others say the county’s comprehensive system was built to protect the community at all levels to maintain a high quality of life.
The effect would be detrimental to the overall safety of the county in many ways. While the arrest and conviction side the county’s responsibilities is public, there are many services provided that benefit the county even more, though are not as widely seen.
For Skinner, the impact of the levy would greatly reduce the services and help offered to victims of domestic violence. She says most domestic violence cases still go unreported, due to intimidation and lack of cohesive response. If the levy fails, that would mean less response and support for victims. What works to save more lives is the quick response time that law enforcement gives to calls of domestic abuse. Skinner said the quick response allows officers to conduct interviews with the victim, offender and other witnesses to build better cases. “It is critical to have manpower right at the beginning,” said Skinner.
Skinner said it is also critical to continue monitoring each incident for the victim’s safety. She said that although offenders are forbidden to make contact with the victim until the case is concluded, most will go back to the victim’s home and intimidate them. That intimidation can leave the victim in a worse situation. They are pressured to drop the charges, which puts them at greater risk for future violence. “Keeping in contact with domestic violence victims is important, especially with children involved” said Hermann.
Prosecuting domestic violence is more difficult when the victim is unsure of the system. “The hardest part is to get the victims on board,” said Hermann. “We have to shelter and respond to the victims to get more victims interested in the process.” Most victims are hesitant to press charges or change their minds from fear of reprisal or denial. It is one of the reasons officers responding to a domestic disturbance are required to take the suspect to jail if they have reason to believe that a crime has been committed and the suspect is still on the premises. The process extends to the district attorney’s office, given the county the decision whether to prosecute, rather than the victim. Although the victim’s wishes are considered, the final decision rests on the county.
The county currently prioritizes follow-up visits several days after the incident to check on the victim and assess the situation. It is the first step in victim safety. Skinner said the advocacy program continues the support services for the victim as the prosecution unfolds. Even such simple services as sitting with the victim during court hearings means the difference between a victim continuing with the case or being scared off. If the levy fails, those important elements could disappear, leaving victims vulnerable to future violence. “The victim feels disenfranchised,” said Skinner. “They won’t help with prosecution if they feel left out of the system.”
The financial concerns of victims in the lower-income brackets would be made even worse if the levy fails. They are most at risk. With no money to leave the situation, they usually withstand more violence. And without the resources to monitor the offender, they will re-offend. One of the few places of refuge for low-income victims is the county’s shelter for domestic violence victims. Tucked away in a secret location, it is the last hope for many victims who have no where else to go. Without it, most women would not leave their violent situation.
Washington County’s shelter, Monika’s House must maintain complete confidentiality to protect those they house. It is why even connecting with a victim is difficult. The only contact most agencies may get with a victim of domestic abuse is by a card or sign posted inside a women’s public restroom at a store or hospital. An emergency number may be their only hope for protection. But that number could be meaningless if there is no shelter to house them. As it is, Monika’s House can only provide a safe haven for 28 people, which includes women and their children. Although being rejected for housing is traumatic enough for anyone, the impact it can place on a victim of domestic abuse is much more daunting.
If the victim is fortunate to be accepted into the shelter, there is much more than protection offered. Counseling, medical care and other services are provided to rebuild the person inside the abused body. It is a delicate but necessary process to get victims strong enough to survive on their own. Otherwise, many are bound to return to the very situation that they fled in the first place. And if that happens, their future is more at risk, especially if the offender has not successfully completed a treatment plan.
“They will do it again and again without intervention,” said Skinner, who said treatment is just as important for the offender to stop the cycle of violence.
For Skinner, it is all about doing it right the first time. She said that all domestic violence cases are put on a fast track in the county. That means that there is a six-week timeline to resolve the issue. But, as Skinner notes, her office receives many cases every day. “Each case takes a lot of time,” said Skinner. “For people without support, advocacy means so much.” Skinner says her office is determined to prevent future violence, but can only provide what resources are available.
“Violence is not acceptable,” said Skinner. “Most people have a friend, a daughter, a co-worker, a family-member that has experienced domestic violence. We are working to prevent future violence.”
© 2006 Foreign Interest
For more information:
Washington County, Oregon:
Center for Victims’ Services: Call: 503.846.3020
Family Violence Intervention Project: Call: 503.846.2886
Domestic Violence Resource Center Hotline: Call: 503.469.8620 or toll free: 1-866-469-8600
Domestic Violence Resource Center: www.dvrc-or.org
Washington County District Attorney, Domestic Violence: www.co.washington.or.us/deptmts/da/dom_viol.htm
Washington County Levies: www.co.washington.or.us/deptmts.cao/levy06/lev06let.htm
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