By Alex Zorn
Though research and awareness on domestic violence have made obsolete the notion that such crimes are a private matter, the judicial system still faces hurdles unique to crimes that occur inside the home.
Of the 830 domestic violence-related cases to come through Mesa County Court in 2019, most were misdemeanors, but how the District Attorney’s Office approaches, handles and follows up on those cases represents a philosophical shift in law enforcement aimed at stymieing future and chronic abuse.
Law enforcement across the state prioritize protecting domestic violence victims but crimes committed between romantic partners, and often behind closed doors, present challenges not found in other cases.
When somebody is accused of shoplifting, for example, the DA’s Office can just file protection orders to prevent that individual from victimizing that business again, typically at the behest of the business owner.
For victims in domestic violence cases it’s rarely as cut and dried. For any number of reasons, ranging from financial to emotional, victims may be hesitant to work with law enforcement and that can be an uphill climb for authorities.
BREAKING THE CYCLE OF VIOLENCE
Earlier in his career, Grand Junction Police Sgt. Lonnie Chavez could not understand why some of the victims he met stayed with their abuser.
Now endorsed as a domestic violence expert for the 21st Judicial District, Chavez has developed a better understanding of the hurdles victims face in leaving. That’s why, Chavez said, some of his proudest moments in law enforcement have been helping victims overcome those hurdles and move out of violent situations.
In one case, he described a woman being so “brainwashed” she could hardly think for herself.
“She went from victim to survivor and is now off on her own,” he said.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, an abused woman will leave a relationship approximately seven times before she leaves for good.
Twenty-first Judicial District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said he wants his office to get involved as early as possible whenever domestic violence cases come across his desk. Involvement includes not only the district attorneys and victim specialists in his office, but also coordinating with the officers and deputies responding to these situations.
In early 2019, Mesa County received a grant to fund a victim specialist to work specifically in domestic violence cases in the hopes of improving service for victims.
The victim specialist works directly with a domestic violence paralegal, DA investigator Bill Middleton. Assigned to all high-risk domestic violence cases in the county, they work with the deputy district attorneys to make the strongest case and to have a good relationship with the victims.
A lot of it is about breaking the cycle of violence, Middleton, who’s been working in domestic violence cases for over 20 years, said.
“We have to be very blunt with people who are sometimes resistant. (We tell them) he is going to kill you if you stay in the relationship,” Middleton said.
In one case he investigated, a woman was strangled unconscious multiple times in one incident. He said she recalled passing out and waking up as many as four times with the man’s hands around her neck.
The violence exhibited in cases like these are not only alarming on the surface, but experts also view strangulation as one of the major red flags in ongoing domestic violence cases.
WHY STRANGULATION IS SO DANGEROUS
Strangulation is an ultimate form of power and control as the batterer demonstrates his command over the victim’s next breath, according to the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention.
Today, 48 states have passed laws to prosecute strangulation and suffocation assaults as a felony, including Colorado.
In 2016, the Colorado General Assembly passed HB 16-1080, Assault by Strangulation, which made strangulation a possible first- or second-degree assault charge — both felonies.
As a result, the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office modernized the way it approached strangulation cases, recognizing the danger it presents.
The odds for homicide increase 750% for victims who have been previously strangled, compared to victims who have never been strangled, according to the Institute.
“We have worked with law enforcement agencies to change our domestic violence investigation forms to add (a section for) strangulation,” Rubinstein said.
Chavez, a 27-year police veteran and sergeant with the GJPD for the past 15 years, said when he teaches classes dealing with violence against women, he will look at cases statewide and go over the symptoms and warning signs for officers to recognize.
Chavez provided instrumental input in seeing the assault-by-strangulation bill passed in Colorado in 2016 and said he remains a proud voice on the issue.
According to the institute, only 50% of strangulation victims have visible injuries, 35% have injuries too minor to photograph, and only 15% of victims have visible injuries which can be photographed.
WORKING WITH VICTIMS
“I think there’s a lot more below the surface for domestic violence than what it appears,” said Jennifer Lucero, director of Victim Services for the 21st Judicial District.
Lucero volunteered with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office as a teenager and witnessed the aftermath of a severe domestic violence incident in the community.
She said she believed the woman’s life was saved that day and she’s been working with domestic violence victims since.
In one more recent case she worked, a female victim was experiencing severe “gaslighting” by her domestic abuser, who it was later learned was manipulating the thermostat. From his work computer, the abuser turned the thermostat all the way up and then would come home and berate her about the cost of the electric bill.
“It was a form of mental and emotional abuse,” she said.
The term gaslighting comes from the 1928 stage play “Gas Light,” in which a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the lights in their home, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Gaslighting is defined as a form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts and sanity, giving the abusive partner more power.
Gaslighting is just one form of domestic violence counselors at Grand Junction’s Latimer House see.
For more than 70 years, the nonprofit organization Hilltop has provided a wide range of human services for western Colorado. Among the services offered for adults include the Latimer House, helping those affected by domestic violence and sexual assault move from crisis to confidence.
Latimer House Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services Supervisor Lynda Wonders said one thing she frequently sees is abusers using cellphones and new technologies to track and stalk their victims.
She said cyberstalking on social media has become a popular and powerful tool to elicit controlling behavior. She’s seen instances in the past where abusers will go to great lengths to stalk their victims online and through social media.
Wonders said every domestic violence case is different and it’s essential for her to leave any judgment at the door before meeting with clients.
The Latimer House offers a variety of services for domestic violence victims ranging from removing families from imminent danger and threatening situations to referring first-time clients to the right resources in the community.
“I’ve seen cases where someone in their late 30s with three children had never been able to make a single decision in her life,” Wonders described. “She came in, got a job and divorce, and became self-sufficient.”
“For her, it was immediate … she knew she was in trouble but she had no idea how to move forward,” Wonders added. “For others it can take years.”
Wonders said she provides services based on the needs of each client.
According to the Hilltop domestic violence stats for Mesa County, 192 individuals were sheltered from January, 2018 to December 2018 (110 adults and 82 children) for a total of 2,016 shelter nights.
“A lot of highly intelligent women can be in abusive relationships and be stuck in it,” Wonders added.
While it can be discouraging to see the same victim come into the safe house again and again after leaving their abuser and going back, Wonders said for some people it takes numerous times before the final straw.
“We’d rather they do that than not come back,” she said.
Wonders said one of the first things she works with clients on who aren’t ready to leave their abuser is getting a safety plan in place.
She tells them to gather birth certificates, bank account information and legal documents in a safe place.
APRIL CONFERENCE FOCUSED ON DV
This spring, the Mesa County Domestic Violence Task Force will be hosting a two-day conference centered on domestic violence education and awareness on April 9 and 10 at Colorado Mesa University.
The 2020 Intimate Partner Violence Awareness Conference will offer numerous courses on topics surrounding intimate partner violence and sex assault with both national and local presenters.
Some of the topics that will be covered are young adult survivors, trauma and the nervous system, a local domestic violence homicide case study and more.
“The safety plan is in place in case they have to walk out the door with nothing,” she said.
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Posted on February 29, 2020 at 9:50 am