Patterns of power and control of domestic violence victims must be broken or the violence will worsen, said the coordinator of Rutherford County’s Domestic Violence Court.
Domestic violence is not the victim’s fault but the fault of the offender’s behavior, said court coordinator Pam Fone.
“We need to stop the ones who are hurting people and give them tools stop their abusive behavior and hold them accountable,” Fone said.
Domestic violence describes someone who uses intentional methods of abuse to create and maintain control over a person in a family relationship, Fone said. The abuser intentionally chooses the behavior that requires forethought.
Because victims often don’t want to prosecute, state law mandates law enforcement officers to arrest the abuser when they find evidence of assault.
Circuit Court Judge Don Ash presided over the Domestic Violence Court until 2004 when his caseload increased.
For the past four years, domestic violence cases were handled with the other criminal cases in General Sessions Court with a docket of some 300 cases daily. When the Rutherford County Commission approved a third judge because of the higher caseload, General Sessions Court Judge Ben McFarlin received one day to handle domestic violence cases.
“This allows us to emphasize to the community we perceive this as a serious problem and to make a positive impact to solving the problem,” McFarlin said.
To give the cases more attention, McFarlin began presiding last week over Domestic Violence Court solely for domestic violence cases at 8:30 a.m. Thursdays in the Judicial Building.
“I felt this was the greatest need in the community,” said McFarlin. “It sends a message to the community we take it seriously.”
Sheriff’s crime statistics showed domestic violence is the No. 1 crime with 1,515 reports in 2008.
Fone said 1,088 individuals were charged with domestic violence from July through December 2008.
For the past four years, Fone has tried to revive the court by talking to prosecutors, judges, law enforcement officers, the Department of Children’s Services and other related agencies. Under her efforts, the county now requires domestic violence offenders to pay a litigation tax. That tax will be used to pay Assistant District Attorney Tamara Stanford who is prosecuting domestic violence cases.
McFarlin said Stanford will have one day in court to prosecute the domestic violence cases that are primarily misdemeanor cases. She will have the remainder of the week to prepare cases, contact witnesses and the alleged victim and talk to the defendants’ attorneys before court for a possible settlement.
When a case can’t be settled, McFarlin will set hearings at a specific time so victims, defendants, witnesses, attorneys and law enforcement officers will spend less time waiting for court.
Breaking the cycle
Murfreesboro Police Sgt. Amy Dean, who supervises four full-time investigators in the Domestic Violence Division, said Domestic Violence Court deals with potential life-threatening situations with so much emotion.
“Our goal is to break the cycle of violence and keep the victim safe until we can hold the perpetrator accountable in court,” Dean said.
The court will help break the cycle of violence by providing services to the perpetrator.
“What assistance does this perpetrator need to break this cycle — 10 days in jail or a 26-week batterers intervention class?” Dean asked.
“On domestic violence, to break the cycle of violence, you must hold the perpetrators responsible for their behavior,” Dean said, adding the court will allow the judge to hold perpetrators accountable. “The more accountable we can hold a perpetrator, the quicker we can change that inappropriate behavior.”
Fone said domestic violence is a learned behavior on the part of the abuser. It’s not the fault of the victim, alcohol or the system.
Blaming the victim means the victim will be less likely to get help while allowing the perpetrator to keep hurting someone will get worse.
The court will give the perpetrator the opportunity to get help through program such as the batterers intervention class offered by Providence Probation Services and Restore.
“These programs use group and cognitive therapy to teach the abuser to assess their behavior and give them methods to fix it,” Fone said, adding the abuser must be accountable for their actions.
“Our goal is to reduce recidivism for sure and hold repeat offenders accountable,” Fone said. “I’m hoping it will help reduce the repeat offender.”
In turn, victims will get more help. They will gather together in a waiting area away from the courtroom to feel safe from the perpetrator. Their children will have movies to watch.
They will meet with advocates who will talk with them and support them through the court process. They will learn about services available through the Domestic Violence Program, how to get out of a situation safely and where they can go.
Dean said the court can improve conditions for the victim, perpetrator and families.
“The end result is to be able to have two healthy people — whether they are together or not,” Dean said. “For them to be better citizens is what we’re looking for.”
Lisa Marchesoni may be reached at 869-0814 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.