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Stopping abuse

Is the justice system working for Maine’s domestic-violence victims?
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  October 14, 2009


It’s not dramatic, and it’s nothing like Law and Order: SVU. The prosecution of domestic-violence cases in the courtroom is dry, detailed, and — for some — questionable in its effectiveness. Which is why Caring Unlimited, Southern Maine’s prominent anti-domestic violence organization, is sending monitors into York County courtrooms several times a week, as part of a six-month watchdog effort to track how domestic-assault and sexual-violence cases are handled in local courts.

READ: Deb Landry's "Burning Bridges," a first-person perspective on domestic violence from interview subject "Michelle"

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“We were hearing from victims of domestic violence that they weren’t really happy with the way things were happening in court,” says Sherry Edwards, community response coordinator for Caring Unlimited.

One reason why this might be is that Maine’s courts are struggling with severe lacks of both money and personnel. “Simply having the resources to process cases, to get them through in a timely manner, just to deal with the volume of the cases that go through the system,” is challenging, says York County District Attorney Mark Lawrence.

His office oversees many of the domestic-violence cases that Caring Unlimited monitors, and it’s experienced a 40-percent reduction, in both staff and funding, over the past few months (in one year, 20 support staff positions — which facilitate all prosecution — shrank to 12). On top of that, navigating the legal system “can be a very frustrating process,” Lawrence admits, especially for first-time victims.

And there are procedural issues that make domestic violence cases more complicated than other types, he adds. For example, “the need to expedite domestic-violence cases” is crucial, because “the longer they go on the more pressure there is on the victim to not want the case to go forward.” The danger is both implicit and explicit — implicit because of the victim’s economic and emotional dependency on the perpetrator; explicit in the form of threats or cajoling on the part of the abuser. In such cases, delays could also be more dangerous for the victim, who becomes more vulnerable to additional mental and physical harm.

Tracking timing is one of Caring Unlimited’s primary goals through its watchdog program, which is an observational project more than a hardcore data-collecting one.

The program, which launched in July and will run through January, is modeled after that of a Minnesota organization called, appropriately, WATCH. Since 1992, WATCH has been training volunteers to monitor court cases, in an effort to “make the justice system more effective and responsive in handling cases of violence against women and children, and to create a more informed and involved public,” according to its media materials. Every season, WATCH issues a newsletter full of anecdotes and information about the processing of domestic-violence and sexual-abuse cases in Minnesota courts.

Caring Unlimited hopes to publish similar “results” after six months, which will be more a compilation of anecdotes than anything else. They’ll shed light, Edwards says, on the tone, speed, and outcome of domestic-violence casework in York County, from which one can extrapolate the state’s, and society’s, degree of understanding of domestic abuse.

Those involved say that all of Maine’s courts would benefit from such close examination. Indeed, it’s not just in York County that victims “don’t understand why their partner is not spending more time in jail,” says Jill Barkley, public awareness and policy coordinator at the statewide Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, speaking about the system, and its outcomes, overall. “I do think that what we see, often, in Maine, is that people are getting away with domestic violence.”

According to the Maine Department of Public Safety and the Maine Statistical Analysis Center at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, domestic violence assaults increased 3.9 percent between 2006 and 2007, and nearly 50 percent between 1998 and 2007. The Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence points out that in 2008, 19 of Maine’s 31 homicides were domestic-violence related — that’s 60 percent. Lawrence says his office gets three to four new domestic violence cases per week, and that’s just what’s reported (national statistics suggest that domestic violence is one of the nation’s most underreported crimes).

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