Violence behind closed doors is harder to identify
By James Neal, Staff Writer, Enid News and Eagle
October 22, 2011
ENID — All forms of violent crime take a heavy toll on society, in both tangible and intangible costs. When the violence takes place behind closed doors between members of a domestic relationship, it can be harder to identify, prevent and prosecute.
Domestic violence is classified as violence between people living in a “domestic relationship.” It includes, among other relationships, spouses and former spouses, dating partners, parents living with adult offspring and roommates.
While domestic violence largely may go unseen by the general public, statistics indicate it perhaps is the most prevalent and least recognized form of violent crime in the community.
Figures provided in a 2011 report by the Oklahoma Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board indicate Garfield County has averaged almost 1,000 reports of domestic violence per year for the last five years. Per capita, Garfield County has the highest rate of domestic violence reports in the state in the 2006-2010 period, according to the report.
In Oklahoma, domestic violence remains the No. 1 cause of death to pregnant women, and the second leading cause of emergency room visits for women after heart conditions, according to Rae Wilson of Northwestern Oklahoma State University.
Wilson teaches courses on domestic violence and social work at Northwestern.
“In my experience, domestic violence affects all areas of our society,” Wilson said. “It affects not only the abuser, the victim and their immediate family … it really affects all of us.”
She said the effects of domestic violence spread beyond the affected household to have real economic costs for the entire community.
“Between court costs, medical costs and lost productivity in the workplace, domestic violence takes a real economic toll on all of us,” she said.
Domestic violence often “goes hand in hand” with other criminal and social issues, such as substance abuse.
“Very often substance abuse contributes to the abuser’s behavior, and very often victims will turn to substance abuse to help manage the pain,” Wilson said.
And the impact continues to the next generation if there are children in the home.
RAE WILSON: “Children model the behavior they see, so children accustomed to domestic violence will very often grow up to be either an abuser or a victim.”
“Children model the behavior they see,” Wilson said, “so children accustomed to domestic violence will very often grow up to be either an abuser or a victim.”
She said children growing up in domestic violence situations also often suffer failure to thrive, perform poorly at school and may suffer long-standing emotional and psychological issues.
Just as domestic violence affects all areas of society, its prevention and prosecution also require a community-wide effort, according to Wilson.
“The entire community plays a part in stopping domestic violence,” she said. “We need to make services available to domestic violence victims as soon as possible, and we all need to do our part to keep victims safe and hold batterers accountable.”
That communitywide approach to dealing with domestic violence is being embraced at Enid Police Department, where a full-time domestic violence investigator closely works with community agencies and non-profit organizations.
Detective Jeff Weber exclusively was assigned to work on sexual assault and domestic violence cases last November.
The new position was made possible by a Violence Against Women Act grant from Oklahoma District Attorneys Council.
Weber’s supervisor, Sgt. Greg Gordon, said Weber handles at least 20 domestic violence cases per month.
Those cases represent only a fraction of the domestic dispute calls and domestic violence reports that come into the police department.
Gordon said the most serious domestic violence cases, including cases where the victim sustained visible wounds or in which a weapon was used, are assigned to Weber for investigation.
In addition to investigating domestic violence crimes, Weber and Gordon also serve on the Garfield County Domestic Violence Task Force.
The task force consists of more than 20 agencies representing local and county law enforcement, nonprofits, prevention and treatment specialists, state service providers, churches, schools and city government. It is chaired by District Attorney Mike Fields.
Gordon said the task force represents a coordinated, communitywide approach to addressing domestic violence.
“It’s really more than just a law enforcement issue,” Gordon said. “It is a societal issue, and the task force encompasses a wider range of organizations that can do more as far as community outreach and awareness.”
While all members of the domestic violence task force work to prevent domestic violence, the task of prosecuting the offenders squarely falls on the shoulders of prosecutors at the district attorney’s office.
Melissa Blanton, executive director of YWCA Enid, said prosecuting domestic violence crimes entails some unique challenges.
Blanton assumed her position at YWCA Enid in August.
Prior to that, she served as an assistant district attorney in Garfield and Grant counties from 2001 to 2008. She then moved on to serve with the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council for three and a half years as a domestic violence resource prosecutor, providing resources, training and consultation to law enforcement, prosecutors and victims’ advocates throughout the state.
“The No. 1 challenge with prosecuting domestic violence cases is the victims,” Blanton said. “Often they will change their story between the time you file charges and when you go to trial, which makes it hard to prosecute the case.”
She said victims often will change their story because they are afraid of reprisals from their abuser, or because they’re not ready to end their relationship with the abuser.
That complicates prosecution of domestic violence cases, because the only witnesses often are the abuser and the victim.
“Unless you have a neighbor or other witness willing to step forward, you’re probably looking at few or no witnesses to the crime,” Blanton said.
“When your primary witness is the victim, and they change their story in the courtroom … any defense attorney is going to latch onto that and it’s going to be hard to get a conviction,” she said.
She said educating the public and members of the justice system on why women stay in abusive relationships, and often why they change their story, is key to successfully preventing and prosecuting domestic violence.
“A lot of times, the victim won’t come forward, or she will change her story, because she has been threatened not to testify, and she feels it may be more dangerous to testify than to just stay in the relationship,” Blanton said.
“It’s understandable to people who work in the field, but for most judges, jurors and the general public, it doesn’t make any sense,” Blanton said. “If we’re really going to tackle domestic violence, we need the public to understand that a woman who stays in a domestic violence situation isn’t just crazy, it’s not her fault for staying … it truly is the abuser’s fault.”
Garfield County Assistant District Attorney Irene Asai also said prosecutors need to work to educate the public on the challenges of prosecuting domestic violence cases.
She said prosecutors frequently come up against the opinion, among judges, jurors and the general public, domestic violence should not be prosecuted if the victim declines to press charges.
“That is an attitude that’s out there, and our response is that domestic violence is a crime against the state of Oklahoma, not just a crime against the victim,” Asai said. “We need to ferret that attitude out of the jury pool, and we need to educate the public that assaulting your domestic partner is a crime against the people of the state.”
“Even if the victim doesn’t want to prosecute, often we have to find a way around that, both for the protection of the victim and the protection of society as a whole,” Asai said.
By prosecuting domestic violence cases without a cooperative victim, prosecutors may be able to move an abuser from a first-time offender status into a repeat-offender classification. And that, Asai said, can mean a big difference in sentencing.
A first offense of domestic violence is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in the county jail and/or a $5,000 fine. Subsequent offenses are classified as felonies, punishable by up to four years in prison.
To report incidents of domestic violence contact Enid Police Department at (580) 242-7000 or the YWCA Enid 24-hour domestic violence crisis line at (580) 234-7644 or (800) 966-7644.