I spoke with four survivors of domestic violence for this piece. They gave a variety of reasons why their husbands and boyfriends abused--watching domestic violence as a child, mental illness, or a need for control--but all of them are focused on moving forward. All of them now work with abused women in their professional lives, in some capacity, and they say that helping others is key to leaving their pasts behind.On Christmas Day in 2010, Debra Horn woke up in a small room with her children. There were three strange things about doing that. First, she was sharing the building with just over a hundred other women and children. Second, there were gifts for her and her children at the door, left by a stranger. Third, and most remarkably, there was peace. After twelve years of chaos, there was no anger, no threatening, no yelling. That was her first glimmer of hope, Horn says, that she and her children could have a peaceful life.Horn woke up that Christmas in Harmony House, which, in addition to being the only domestic violence shelter in Greene County, was the first domestic violence shelter in Missouri and is now the state's second-largest emergency violence shelter. It serves 110 people a night--nearly all women and children in "imminent danger" from domestic abuse. "Imminent danger" is the standard for admitting a victim into the shelter's secure area--past two sets of locked doors guarded with key codes only the staff knows, one of which has a video camera. For one of the doors, not even the staff has keys; that way, if someone got in the first door, they couldn't force their way into the inner area where the rooms are. To get in, someone has to ring the bell and wait for the office to confirm his or her identity through the video camera near the front door; only then will the door be unlocked. Such precautions keep those inside safe from violent abusers, who often resort to stalking to intimidate their victims into returning. Abuse is a "power and control" dynamic, according to experts, so victims are most in danger when the abuser feels he or she has lost that control: when the victim finally leaves. Horn says that the only reason she survived leaving her abuser was because she was in that emergency shelter.
We don't want our happy country town to be known for domestic violence.
Sara* is also a law enforcement officer, and she remembers the shame, guilt, and uncertainty that kept her from calling the police during a near-death episode with her ex-husband. She says he cornered her in the living room for hours, a cocked and loaded gun to her face, screaming that he knew she must be cheating. He had regularly accused her of unfaithfulness without basis since their early dating years, though she says he had come home with hickeys. Sara remembers the loud click of the bullet falling into the chamber when he cocked the weapon as the most chilling sound she had ever heard. "I remember thinking, 'This is the day I'm doing to die.' I had this new light-colored carpet, and I kept looking down and thinking about how I was going to ruin it with all of my blood." Sara's ex-husband threatened to kill himself and burn down the house with her in it. Yet, when he suddenly flew out of the door in a rage, promising to return, she did not call 911."I was embarrassed. I was the police," she says. She called a friend, who took it upon herself to call officers to the scene.Not every woman in Sara's situation makes it out alive; Missouri is among the top ten states with the highest rates of women being killed by men, according to a report compiled in 2012. The vast majority of those homicides are committed by men the victims know; 62 percent are committed by husbands or "intimate acquaintances." For that reason, the Domestic Violence Task Force has been working with the prosecutor's office to conceptualize a "fatality review board." All but nine states have either considered or enacted these boards; Missouri's senate considered a bill in 2011, but it was never enacted. A committee of experts, law enforcement, and local family violence advocates generally convenes to review each domestic violence-related death to assess where the system could have intervened to prevent it. "That takes a lot of legislation and planning," says Lisa Cox, a member of the Family Violence Task Force who works for the Springfield Police Department.
I refused to cooperate, like most domestic violence victims. You can't. You don't want to. You know you're going to get in more trouble.
Right now, Springfield prosecutors usually seek unsupervised probation with a 26-week treatment course for misdemeanor domestic violence offenders; for first time for misdemeanor offenders with no criminal history, the state will agree to a suspended sentence with unsupervised probation and treatment. However, when there are prior instances of abuse and criminal history, there can be enhanced punishment, which may include a jail sentence or supervised probation by the specialized domestic violence probation officers and additional treatment. For felony domestic violence charges--more serious cases--prosecutors seek higher penalties. Sara's husband was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. The day he was released from jail on unsupervised probation, he forced his way into her house. After completing the anger management classes, he began beating Sara again.
I had this new light-colored carpet, and I kept looking down and thinking about how I was going to ruin it with all of my blood.
Second, Holden hopes to provide sentencing incentives for batterers to complete treatment: shorter sentences and free programs. He says this would stop the revolving door in the current system: offenders skipping treatment programs, having probation revoked, and then getting out on parole again. Myers says that this idea was successful for drug offenders, but he would hesitate to consider it for domestic violence convictions. "Typically it wouldn't be our preference to start [decreasing sentences] for felony domestic violence offenses, because we want to target people [for incentives] who are just starting down this road with misdemeanors," he says. And it would be difficult to be more lenient with misdemeanors than prosecutors currently are: seeking unsupervised probation. Walker says that her job as director of Harmony House has shown her that batterer intervention is key, and jail isn't necessarily the best solution. "What good does jail do?" she asks. "I could serve 20 victims, or I could fix one batterer and prevent one more person from becoming a victim." Judge Burton disagrees with the entire concept of decreasing sentences for defendants. He says that drug and mental illness courts are different because they are treatment courts. "I have a problem for rewarding [people for completing programs] that they're supposed to be doing as a punishment," says Burton.Holden also wants to use the court as a way to encourage victims to seek counseling. "What we don't deal with in court are the victims," he says. And they can't, of course--victims haven't done anything to merit a court mandate to complete treatment. Holden wants to have judges in the domestic violence court personally ask victims to attend counseling and report back to the court; it's not a mandate, but a strong encouragement. As it is now, victims can turn to the Victim Center, where specialized domestic violence counselors can provide long-term therapy, according to the center's executive director, Brandi Bartel. Horn went to the Victim Center once a week for two years. However, Holden says that most victims don't follow up with treatment. "They think they will be fine, but [what happened] doesn't go away; it just gets buried."Walker says that therapy is essential to stop the cycle of abusive relationships. The average woman goes back to her abuser seven times before leaving, she says, and even after leaving victims often end up in other abusive relationships. "It's about learning what is OK and defining what your boundaries are that prevents you from going through that cycle again," she says. Sara goes to hospitals to talk to domestic violence victims as part of her job in law enforcement. "They go through it over and over," she says. "Some women go through it forever."Communities across the country are founding specialty courts--like the idea Springfield is considering--to break that abusive cycle. New York City, Boise, Idaho, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, are just a few of the cities that now boast domestic violence courts. They use funding from the Violence Against Women Act, and each year one of them hosts a national conference for all domestic violence courts to attend. Throughout the year, courts can choose to become "mentors," opening their doors to another developing domestic violence court for tours and one-on-one guidance.Tulsa's court is acting as a mentor court for Springfield, offering tours and one-on-one meetings. Springfield's Domestic Violence Task Force recently took a day trip to Tulsa, where Judge Mary Fitzgerald oversees the domestic violence court. "Clearly this [domestic violence court] is something that works," she says. "We are at the cutting edge." Fitzgerald says recidivism, or repeating abusive behavior, decreased for offenders in her program."It's very hard to understand the whole power and control dynamic of domestic violence, and training teaches you that," she says. Walker agrees that trained judges can assess situations better; often, Walker says, there are custody issues because a woman appears unstable, when really an abuser might have kicked her out of her home or otherwise impaired her ability to care for her children. Judge Burton from St. Louis says that the specialty courts can also move much faster than a criminal process to get defendants into a hearing. "It scares them," he says. "We don't lock up most of these guys, but when they are caught red handed [violating a protection order], they're scared to death."Fitzgerald also emphasizes the importance of judicial demeanor: a sense of firmness and also treating defendants on a first-name basis so that they feel known. "[These crimes] typically happen behind closed doors," she says. "Bringing them into the sunlight, in front of a judge who knows the history of the case and what is going on in this defendant's life, makes a very big difference. They aren't hiding behind a façade anymore--the crime is called out."*Names have been changed.
What good does jail do?