Rates decline, but domestic abuse still a crisis

by ELIZABETH PEZQUEDA

Large numbers of women across the United States suffer from domestic violence every year, and until recently, many of them did not have access to the resources they need to get help.

While there are currently hundreds of programs and centers for domestic violence victims around the country, it continues to be a problem.

In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was designed to make the criminal justice system more responsive to domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking and to have more services available for victims, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The bill was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, and has spurred the development of several other bills and programs designed to assist abuse victims. Some of these programs include the development of the Office on Violence Against Women and child witness programs, among others.

Prior to the passing of VAWA, getting help was especially difficult for those victims who qualified as low-income. Without being able to afford an attorney for legal proceedings like court hearings, divorce filings and custody battles, fighting domestic abuse through the legal system was not always easy.

Kai Wilson, executive director of “…And Justice For All,” a nonprofit legal group in Salt Lake City that caters to low-income individuals, said with all the programs that are now available to victims, “money should never be a reason not to seek help.”

Organizations like “…And Justice For All” are now available all around the country. Most do not charge for many of their services and can help victims with a range of issues stemming from domestic abuse.

Alma Perez, a paralegal at Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, said whether or not violence is addressed as a primary reason for filing for divorce, most of the divorce cases she handles do have domestic abuse issues. Legal Aid is one of three groups that make up “…And Justice For All” and handles hundreds of requests for domestic violence assistance every month. Two other groups offer assistance for other legal issues, including disability cases and employment discrimination.

Perez also said women make up 85 percent of those who file for protective orders or civil stalking injunctions at Legal Aid.

Sergeant Dan Brewster, who supervises the domestic violence squad in the Salt Lake City Police Department, said officers investigate between 100 and 200 reports of domestic abuse every month.

Sandra Campbell-Tenhagen, the office manager at the Legal Aid branch office inside the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City, has been working for Legal Aid for 11 years and estimates that her branch sees around 175 requests for protective orders and stalking injunctions every month, indicating a major issue.

“Most protective orders get granted or denied on the same day,” Campbell-Tenhagen said. “If it’s granted, it’s an order as soon as the judge signs off on it, but the respondent has to be served with a copy before if becomes effective.”

If something were to happen between the victim and the abuser before the abuser can be served with a copy of the order, the abuser cannot be punished for violating it, Campbell-Tenhagen said.

After being served with the order, the respondent then has a chance to fight the allegations of abuse at a hearing that is scheduled within 20 days from that time. During the hearing, the judge may either dismiss the order or grant it permanently.

If the victim and alleged abuser have children, the petitioner will be assigned custody of their children if the order is granted.

In addition to assisting victims of abuse in the Salt Lake area with filing protective orders and civil stalking injunctions, Legal Aid works with several other organizations to help victims resolve any issues that may stem from seeking help, such as finding housing, employment and child care.  Some groups that work with Legal Aid are: the YWCA, the Utah Department of Human Services, the Family Support Center, the Salt Lake Area Family Justice Center and the Department of Workforce Services.

Legal Aid may also refer victims to counseling services or a victim’s advocate from a police department.

Stewart Ralphs, executive director of Legal Aid, said his experience in dealing with domestic abuse cases has proven that abuse typically escalates, and that seeking help is the first step in stopping that trend.

“Until someone intervenes, the violence only gets worse,” Ralphs said. “It may come in waves and cycles, but it does get worse.”

With a large portion of the nonprofit’s funding coming from the government, Ralphs said he is thankful that domestic abuse issues are being acknowledged by the state.

“The government has recognized that [domestic abuse] is a prevalent problem, and [government funding] is a major reason that we get to offer our services for free,” he said.

Indicators that domestic violence is still a serious issue include statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice that family violence accounted for 11 percent of reported and unreported violence between 1998 and 2002. Twenty-two percent of murders in 2002 were family murders, and in 1997, 15 percent of nearly 500,000 violent offenders in state prisons were there for a violent crime against a family member.

Statistics also show in 2005, a parent or other family member committed two-thirds of murders of children under the age of 5. In the same year, 18 percent of offenders who committed violent crimes against women were described as having a current or previous relationship with their victim.

Despite these trends and percentages, statistics also state the rate of nonfatal relationship violence against females between 1993 and 2001 declined by nearly half.

With so many resources available to abuse victims, no matter their income, there is reason to hope victims will be able to get out of abusive situations with much less financial and legal struggle than in previous years.

“We hope we’ve worked to make this process much simpler for victims than it used to be,” Ralphs said.

If victims are unsure about the name, location or details of organizations in their area that can help, they can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline or a local police department.