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High-Profile Cases Put Spotlight On Domestic Abuse
Ken Edwards shakes his head in disbelief when he thinks about his first domestic violence training session as a rookie cop in New London in 1981.
The instructor encouraged the young officers to keep family violence a private matter and told them an arrest "is absolutely your last option," Edwards recalled. "Otherwise, see if you can get the guy to take a walk ... down to the corner bar."
That approach is all but extinct today.
The "Tracey Thurman Law" in 1986 made arrests mandatory if there's evidence of an offense. Law enforcement training now delves into the complexity of family violence, and the attitudes of the police, the public, prosecutors and judges have broadened.
Domestic violence, victim advocates say, is finally being seen for what it is: a crime.
As with drunken driving, sexual assault, child abuse and victims' rights, perceptions of domestic violence have changed dramatically, and so has the way law enforcement responds to it. No one gets to simply walk it off anymore.
"To go from that to where we are today in such a short period of time in policing is really unheard of. We don't change very easily," said Edwards, who retired from New London as a captain and now trains police on domestic violence issues as an inspector for Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane.
The police and the courts have better tools to fight the problem — longer, more demanding "batterers intervention programs"; court dockets that specialize in domestic violence cases; digital camera kits for documenting victims' injuries; computerized protection-order files.
All of this flowed from Thurman's battle against brutality and apathy in Torrington. The stand she took led to the state's Family Violence Response and Prevention Act of 1986.
But Edwards and others will tell you that, 23 years later, there's still a long way to go.
When someone asks if women are any safer today, some experts pause, their answers elusive and complicated.
Others are more direct.
"I would say no, women in abusive relationships are not safer," said Erika Tindill, a former prosecutor who directs the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The agency represents emergency shelters, crisis hot lines, and other programs across the state.
"Women have many more options available to them, and law enforcement is much more effective, but safety is still a major concern," Tindill said.
Several recent cases drove that point home.
In June, Alice Morrin of Vernon was slain by her husband, who then killed himself.
In July, Nancy Tyler of South Windsor was kidnapped, allegedly by her estranged husband, Richard Shenkman, and held hostage for hours. Tyler escaped before the house burned, allegedly set on fire by Shenkman.
Last month, a Waterbury man, Orlando Figueroa, was charged with trying to stab his 8-month-old daughter to death because, police said, he was angry at the child's mother.
Worsening Problem?Despite mandatory arrests and greater public awareness of the problem, the number of domestic violence incidents has held steady over much of the past two decades, at roughly 19,000 to 21,000 annually.
And there's evidence the problem has intensified in the past year: In Hartford, one category of family violence — assault — has risen in each of the past five years; the number of cases coming into state courts is increasing; and more victims are seeking emergency shelter or calling crisis hot lines.
In 2007, slightly more than 20,000 incidents in Connecticut were classified by police as family violence cases — crimes involving a spouse, a former spouse, a relative, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a live-in companion or the mother or father of the victim's child. Included in that number are these:
•22 family violence homicides.
•107 sexual assaults.
•149 instances of risk of injury to children.
•6,691 cases of disorderly conduct.
•4,212 breach of peace cases.
•2,013 violations of court orders.
•288 instances of criminal mischief.
Those numbers include scores of women who have been victimized more than once.
Often, it takes six or seven episodes of physical violence or verbal threats "before a woman accomplishes her leave" and seeks refuge with a friend or relative, or at an emergency shelter, Tindill said. From July 2005 through June 2008, about 5,600 women and children came through the 16 shelters under the coalition's umbrella.
Victims do not follow a script in the way they respond. They may stay in an abusive relationship because of economic dependence, fear for their children's safety, or fear that leaving may antagonize the batterer and elevate the violence. For those same reasons, victims often are reluctant to cooperate with authorities, making prosecutions difficult and keeping domestic violence an underreported crime. In 2007, the average conviction rate in Connecticut for domestic violence cases was 24 percent.
"It's a lot less complicated if it's a stranger coming at you and clobbering you," said Barbara Spiegel, director of the Susan B. Anthony Project, which offers crisis services in Torrington. "Then there's no question in the victim's mind that the police should be involved."
Battering and family violence are problems that transcend urban, suburban or rural boundaries. The town of Winchester, which has a population of just over 10,000 and includes Winsted, has a higher per capita rate of domestic crime than Hartford, with a population of 124,500.
But nothing is simple here. The higher numbers in some communities could mean that police and support services are responsive and victims feel comfortable about reporting domestic violence. Conversely, very low numbers of reported incidents in a community could suggest that some victims aren't coming forward, advocates say.
Even though victims often are reluctant to reach out to authorities, the domestic violence caseload in Connecticut's courts is rising — a fact that speaks to the depth of the problem.
In 2006-07, there were 25,901 family violence cases in court; the figure rose to 29,381 in 2008-09.
And in the past 12 months, crisis hot lines and shelters have reported significant increases in contacts with victims. For example, Meriden-Wallingford Chrysalis, which offers services and support for domestic violence victims, reported an 83 percent spike in hot line calls for the first half of this year, when compared to January through June of 2008.
Advocates say the economic recession has added stress on households, and that the series of high-profile domestic violence cases has focused attention on the problem.
"I think [these publicized cases] bring home reality," said Cecile Enrico, executive director of Hartford's Interval House. "Somebody who is in the situation recognizes, 'Oh my goodness, it can happen to me.'"
Hartford Response UnitHartford Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts recently reviewed the violent-crime statistics for his city, and what he saw troubled him.
The numbers showed a 10 percent increase in domestic aggravated assaults from Jan. 1 to Aug. 1 this year when compared with the same period a year ago. Those domestic assaults accounted for about a third of the city's total aggravated assaults during that period.
He checked further and saw that this category of family violence had increased dramatically in five years, from 48 aggravated assaults in the first seven months of 2005 to 169 during the same months this year.
Roberts said he knew he had to come up with a plan to target the problem.
"The home is supposed to be a sanctuary," he said. "No one in a family should have to live in fear of being a prisoner in their own home. We knew we needed to come up with something that would give people a sense of hope."
That hope lies in the planning of a special domestic violence response unit made up of detectives who will investigate family violence cases and identify and track repeat offenders.
Roberts said the unit, working with prosecutors and victim advocates, would help families get the services they need and follow up to ensure that abusers are adhering to court orders.
"We want to make sure we advocate for the victims and track these cases so it does not become a pattern," Roberts said.
The chief sees the unit going beyond its law-enforcement duties and reaching out to those who might not be willing to talk about what's going on behind closed doors.
"Sometimes, people just need to see that people care," Roberts said. "And we need to care — especially about the children who are seeing it in the house. We need to prevent a child from becoming an abuser."
The increase in domestic aggravated assaults also signals a concern for officers on the beat, Roberts said. Emotionally charged domestic incidents can be some of the most dangerous calls for police.
Roberts hopes to have the unit operating in the next six months to a year. The department is seeking funding from both state and federal sources in order to train one sergeant and four officers, and other money needed for development.
The Hartford effort is supported by top state officials.
"You can see there's a certain readiness for them right now," said Assistant State's Attorney Kevin Dunn. He oversees family violence dockets for the chief state's attorney's office.
Dunn met recently with Hartford State's Attorney Gail P. Hardy to discuss the new squad.
Several police departments in the state, including Stamford, Bridgeport and Norwich, already have teams that specialize in domestic violence cases. In Trumbull, Sgt. Doug Smith is a one-person unit, reviewing all of the department's family violence reports for thoroughness.
Tracey Thurman On June 10, 1983, Charles "Buck" Thurman stabbed Tracey Thurman 13 times, stomped on her head, broke her neck and left her in a friend's driveway in Torrington. She had been abused and battered many times before. Today, the 48-year-old woman, who married again and is now Tracey Motuzick, walks with difficulty.
In 1984, she became the first woman in the country to sue a town and its police department for violating her civil rights, saying she wasn't protected from the abuse. She won an award of $2.3 million in what would become a landmark case, but the cost, in pain and frustration, was incalculable.
In 1985, Gov. William A. O'Neill appointed a 13-member panel of experts to change the way Connecticut responds to family violence. The panel's report, in January 1986, led to Public Act 86-337, known by victim advocates, judges and law enforcers across the country as the "Tracey Thurman Law."
Aside from mandating an arrest when there's evidence of a crime, the Connecticut law requires that domestic violence suspects go before a judge on the next available court date. It added another dimension to the court system: the Family Relations Division, which directs offenders into counseling and offers services to victims. The law required the monitoring of protection and restraining orders, and created centralized reporting for family violence cases.
Arrests skyrocketed, jumping from an estimated 9,000 in 1985, to about 28,000 in 1990. About 82 percent of the victims were women.
Before the law, most of the family violence cases that came to court were not prosecuted, and the alleged abusers walked away after their initial court appearance with little or no counseling.
Today, with the growth of pretrial offender counseling programs, the majority of cases move beyond that first appearance, and defendants, even if they are not convicted, usually receive some level of counseling. They also must satisfy court orders, such as restitution and orders of protection, Dunn said.
In 1997, domestic violence dockets were created in some courts, where specially assigned prosecutors handle nothing but family violence cases.
"The DV docket allows the judge to give these cases special attention," said Superior Court Judge Lawrence L. Hauser, who sits in Bridgeport. He was one of the pioneers of the special dockets. "And it allows for vertical prosecution — where you have the same judge, the same prosecutor, the same bail commissioner, the same victim advocate all the way through.
"You're never going to be right all the time," Hauser said. "Sometimes we listen to the victim when we shouldn't have, and sometimes we don't listen to the victim when we should have. All you can do with this criminal justice continuum is to try to come up with the best solution, one that protects the victim, stops the violence and brings accountability to the abuser."
But of the 20 geographical courts in the state, only eight — Waterbury, New Britain, Hartford, Norwalk, Stamford, Bridgeport, New Haven and New London — have special family violence dockets. In the other courts, the cases go into the mainstream.
Kane, the chief state's attorney, said there isn't enough money in the system to put a special docket in every courthouse. Even among the eight, the resources vary. In Bridgeport, one of the first to have a special domestic violence docket, three prosecutors are assigned. In New Britain, with an extremely busy docket, one prosecutor, Elizabeth Moseley, handles the load.
And the work isn't for everyone.
Dunn said some prosecutors describe their role in domestic violence cases as more social worker than law enforcer.
"These cases can emotionally rack the heck out of you," Dunn said. "You get advocates telling you he's going to kill her. When you hear that day in and day out, your nervous system gets a little twitchy."
Public AwarenessThe problem is bigger than the courts or the cops.
The solutions have as much to do with public education, housing, job training, day care, affordable health care, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation, as with law enforcement.
"When you're talking domestic violence, you're talking social issues more so than criminal justice," said state Rep. Mike Lawlor, D- East Haven, a former prosecutor and co-chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee. "We can try to prevent further victimization, to protect women and children and help pull them out of violent relationships, but the criminal justice system is a backstop — it won't touch the root causes."
Stan Konesky, a retired Branford lieutenant who has been training recruits for 10 years at the Connecticut Police Academy in Meriden, says public awareness is key.
"We need to do something iconic, like the way the public now recognizes that drunken driving is not acceptable. And we have to get to children earlier, with things like anti-bullying programs, so they don't grow up to repeat the cycle. We're not there yet."