Journal of the San Juan Islands


DV: a criminal justice perspective | Guest Column

October 24, 2012 · Updated 2:39 PM

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. / Journal file art

By Sandi Burt, victims advocate

The dispatcher recognizes the victim’s voice. The deputies know the address. The prosecutor remembers the prior incidents. The advocate knows the victim. The defense attorney, judge, probation officer, counselors, domestic violence perpetrator treatment provider know the abuser.

We all take our deep breaths, conjuring hope that, perhaps, this time, change will come. We will into ourselves professionalism and creative energy, and rekindle our care. We hope our small piece of the puzzle can, this time, help to make the difference.

Why? Because violence escalates. In 2011, in Washington State:

42 people were killed by domestic violence abusers.

13 abusers committed murder - suicide.

83 percent of victims killed by partners were women. 17 percent were men.

Three domestic violence fatality cases involved same-sex partners.

The youngest victim, killed by her boyfriend, was 13 years old. The oldest victim, killed by his wife, was 83 years old.

17 children witnessed a domestic violence murder.

In at least 55 percent of homicides by abusers, the domestic violence victim had left the abuser or was trying to leave (Washington Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2012).

Victims call 911 when things are so out of control that they fear for their lives. When they survive, and calm returns, they face the challenging effects of their partner’s arrest — practical and emotional — simply too much for some.

When victims also have mental health, substance abuse, or other problems, the challenge of holding abusers accountable is further compromised by their own desperate needs. They call the advocate, asking for charges to be dropped, no contact orders to be lifted; “It wasn’t so bad. . ..”

What many do not understand is that victims do not decide whether charges are filed. This is the sole responsibility of the prosecutor. If domestic violence victims were responsible for these decisions, how high might the domestic violence homicide rates soar?

No contact orders forbid defendants from contacting victims — for the protection of the victim, the family, the community, the case. Paradoxically, when all a victim wants is to reunite with the defendant, the “system” becomes another experience in feeling no control — much like life with an abuser.

Most victims want treatment, not jail, for their abusers. This goal is shared by the criminal justice system, especially for first offenses. Many believe counseling and chemical dependency treatment will solve the domestic violence problem.

Though substance abuse and mental illness often coexist with, and exacerbate domestic violence, these problems are separate and distinct from the unique problems of abusers. Domestic violence has roots in the way abusers relate to partners — it’s not “caused” by substances or mental illness. All of these problems need to be addressed.

State law sets strict standards for Domestic Violence Perpetrator Treatment, but our local state certified program closed a few months ago. Offenders now must get treatment on the mainland — in these economic times, a significant hardship. The alternative? Some time in jail? Fines? Give up? We hope for a program to resume services here soon.

We keep breathing, hoping, caring. . ..

— Editor’s note: Sandi Burt works as a victims’ advocate with the San Juan County prosecuting attorney’s office.


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