Domestic violence issues debated, questions raised

Posted: Sunday, November 02, 2003

What causes domestic violence? Who are the aggressors and who are the victims? Are Alaska's domestic violence laws too severe? Why don't victims of domestic violence just leave?

These are among the questions asked, debated and answered in central Kenai Peninsula workshops and seminars during October, which was designated as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Attorneys in the Kenai Public Defenders office, who handle as many as five domestic violence cases in one day, believe Alaska's mandatory arrest and bail statutes are too burdensome, but they agree with those who care for victims that domestic violence is a serious crime and often goes unreported for a long time.

Care givers and public defenders also agree that laws directed at domestic violence and available help for perpetrators and victims need to be made known.

"Alaska's domestic violence statutes are onerous," attorney Brooke Browning said.

"First let me say that domestic violence is a scourge that goes hidden for a long time," she said.

"Now there's no discretion, though. People arrested for domestic violence enter plea agreements just so they can return home," Browning said.

She explained that, under Alaska law, if police respond to a domestic violence call, and the officer has probable cause to believe a person committed a crime of domestic violence, that person must be arrested.

"Then, an automatic condition of release is that the arrestee can't go back to live in the home, so he lives in a car or somewhere," Browning said.

"Rather than wait two or three months until the trial, he enters a plea to a lesser charge of DV assault or harassment and he can go home after sentencing.

"But then, he has a DV conviction. He can't own a firearm and if he repeats, there's mandatory jail," she said.

Browning said people often get into a heated argument and call police to act as a referee without realizing the implications of the call.

"The snowball starts to roll," Browning said. "Then the police do what they must; the judge does what he must."

Police do not need to witness a violent act or find evidence of an attack such as a black eye or a bloody nose. All that is required under Alaska's mandatory arrest statute is that one person has been placed in fear of the other.

"According to the statute, a person commits the crime of assault if 'by words or other conduct that person recklessly places another person in fear of imminent physical injury,'" said John Morrison, also an attorney in the Kenai Public Defenders office.

"After the arrest, the person shall not return to the residence of the victim while out on bail," Browning said.

"Then a few days later, the victim calls us asking, 'Why can't he come home?'" she said. "We can't do anything. The law forbids him from going home," she said.

People involved in domestic violence cases need not be married couples under Alaska statutes. They can be former spouses, people who live together or have lived together, people who are dating or have dated, those who are engaged in or who have engaged in a sexual relationship, those who are related to each other by blood or by marriage or formerly related by marriage and people who have a child together, Morrison said.

In most instances of domestic violence on the Kenai Peninsula, the aggressor is the man and the victim is the woman, said Cheri Smith, director of the Women's Resource and Crisis Center in Kenai.

"Domestic violence is based on an element of fear," Smith said.

"The dynamics with the man usually being physically larger and stronger are such that men typically are not the ones in fear of domestic violence," Smith said.

Smith, who was in charge of the center's batterers intervention program for 10 years before being named director in September, said between 95 and 97 percent of the cases she has seen involve a male assaulting a female.

The batterers program is a 46-week course during which men learn that domestic violence is learned behavior, while they previously have seen it as an entitlement.

"The focus (of batterers) is always geared toward what the victim is or isn't doing," Smith said.

In normal relationships, couples use communication to solve problems and settle arguments, but in domestic violence situations, the aggressor uses violence as a control tactic, she said.

"It's very targeted toward the victim," Smith said.

The batterers intervention program starts with two orientation sessions at a cost of $100 followed by 46 weekly classes at $25 each. For those unable to afford the fees, community service can be performed in lieu of payment.

"This isn't treatment," Smith said. "It's re-education.

"Changing from behavior of domestic violence starts at home. If we can, we make people see that they can have a more loving relationship," she said.

"The batterer only changes, though, if he decides to," she said.

The Women's Resource and Crisis Center also provides emergency shelter for women and children who have been victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse.

"We have a 32-bed emergency shelter and we provide emergency safety," Smith said.

In addition to providing a place to stay, the shelter helps victims in need of information on domestic violence or legal matters such as obtaining protective orders from the court.

"In fiscal year 2003, we had 5,600 bed nights," Smith said, reflecting the occupancy rate of the shelter.

"We served 111 women and 91 children."

The center typically receives 400 walk-in clients per year, and recently has seen an average of 20 new domestic-violence clients a month. Those are people seeking assistance for the first time.

When asked why victims of domestic violence don't leave the marriage or the relationship, Smith said, "That increases her lethality by 75 percent.

"In the news reports you always see 'estranged,' 'divorced,' 'separated,'" she said.

"And maybe, she has no financial resources, no place to go.

"She may have been isolated for so long not being allowed to visit family or have friends she has no one to go to for help.

"Leaving is not easy and it's more lethal," Smith said.

Victims stay in the Kenai shelter typically for six to eight weeks, although some have stayed as long as a year, she said.

Staff members also conduct outreach programs such as the recent four-day Community Awareness Workshop on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the Kenai River Center, and they visit area schools to provide information on healthy relationships and dating violence.

Smith said the awareness is important to show a supportive community what is being done for victims and batterers.

"It's more important that a victim or a batterer can see what's available for them."

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