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Court program focuses efforts on reducing domestic abuse

Officials hope to find solutions for domestic abuse by handling all cases in one courtroom before one judge.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- They file into the courtroom slowly, voices low as they take their seats.

It is quiet. No sign of the reasons they have been summoned -- the shouts, shattered dishes thrown across living rooms, yellowed bruises hidden beneath long sleeves. Many, both the victims and the defendants, resent having to come at all.

"Me and my wife are working on our problems," William Baillargeon, who is charged with domestic battery, told the judge. "I feel like 12 months' probation is too severe (punishment)." Welcome to Hernando County's domestic violence court, an experiment in the making. It is the end of the road for some relationships and the middle of a cycle for others. Each Thursday, for two hours, folks from all walks of life come to sit in these courtroom benches to answer for their crimes, or to testify to the crimes of others.

There are no boundaries of race or economics here. Men arrive in muddy boots and sneakers and shiny, tasseled loafers. Some are alone, some have wives or girlfriends on their arm.

Women also wait in this chilly, air-conditioned chamber, some with employee name tags pinned to their shirts, others with large diamond rings flashing from their fingers, another with an octopus tattoo on her forearm. Most are victims, though some are the accused.

They are all players in a societal problem, local officials say, that has not been appropriately addressed by the judicial system. Until now.

At least, that's the hope.

Now in its ninth week, Hernando's domestic violence court aims to concentrate the efforts of prosecutors, defense attorneys, counselors and investigators on the problems and possible solutions related to domestic abuse.

For the past five years, the number of domestic abuse-related offenses reported in Hernando County has been fairly stable, , until 1999, when an all-time high of 1,332 offenses were reported, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics. This sudden increase is contrary to the decrease in domestic abuse that is being seen both statewide and nationwide.

Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai, who started the push for the new domestic violence court structure, said that by giving more attention and more options to those who walk through the courthouse doors, more progress can be made.

This change will be presided over by Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink.

"The whole effort here is to make sure that people who need their behavior corrected get the treatment, counseling and punishment needed," the judge said.

In the old system, Nicolai said, many domestic violence cases were packed on dockets with other crimes: fishing without a license, shoplifting, citations from code enforcement officials. This misdemeanor docket overflowed, and the many officials involved with the domestic violence process were often not all available to sit through the long sessions.

Now, it's "one-stop shopping," Assistant State Attorney Bill Catto said.

Because Tombrink will hear all of the domestic cases weekly, except those that are felonies, Catto says, everyone will be available and there will be a greater level of familiarity and continuity.

"It's the integrated approach, rather than splitting them up piecemeal and having everyone lack information," Catto said. "The more (Tombrink) can get to know people, the more just the outcome, the more informed the outcome."

Tombrink will hand down sentences that order less jail time and more rehabilitation if the defendants are willing, Assistant State Attorney Ed McDonough said. A 26-week intervention course for abusers will be standard fare, and abusers will be watched closely to make sure they follow through with the proscribed treatment.

This focus on rehabilitation is the result of practical experience, Catto said. Jail simply doesn't cut it. If officials really want to help, he said, they have to go other routes.

"We're not deluding ourselves that when we put these people in jail, we're rehabilitating them. They're the same person," Catto said. "What we have here is a system that punishes them, but also treats them, so maybe they don't come back. We're offering the victim and defendant the opportunity to end the cycle."

The key to making this treatment work, officials add, is follow-up. Defendants will have to reappear periodically before the judge for status checks. If they miss a meeting, probation officials will immediately schedule them to appear in court. In the old system, defendants rarely did this. The court often had no clue people had stopped treatment unless they violated their probation in another more serious way, Tombrink said.

"(Before) you could kind of float. Maybe you don't come back to court for three months, where now, you have to come back every week for six weeks to make sure you're doing what you need to do," he said.

The domestic violence court will also affect how things are done outside the courtroom. McDonough said victims of abuse now will be contacted earlier and made more aware of options such as the Dawn Center, a shelter for battered women, or government relocation money. Lisa Wall, a former Citrus County abuse investigator recently hired by the state attorney's office, will question victims and tackle the often daunting task of persuading them to testify against the partners they often still love or rely on for financial support.

"The difference here is the interaction we have with the victim," McDonough said. "It's important to let the victim know that, for once, the agencies are listening to them. I think then they'll be more likely to follow through."

And if they don't the first time, at least the experience will prepare them for the next time, because there almost always is a next time, Dawn Center executive director Lori Hoban said.

"If she can just be educated, when she finally makes up her mind to help herself and her children, we'll be there," Hoban said.

It is too soon to see if the new system is having the desired effect, officials say.

Nationwide, reports of domestic violence are falling, according to a Justice Department study. Instances of domestic violence have dropped 21 percent in recent years, falling from an estimated 1.1-million cases in 1993 to about 876,000 cases in 1998, said federal officials, who based their conclusions on interviews at nearly 300,000 households. Domestic abuse killings are also at their lowest numbers in a quarter century, and women are reporting abuse to police far more frequently than in the past, the study said.

On May 11, a typical day of domestic violence court, 28 cases of assault or battery were listed on the docket. Thirteen were dropped because the victim declined to prosecute or a conviction was deemed unlikely. Twelve cases were scheduled for further hearings or for trial. Two offenders accepted plea deals that offered probation in exchange for treatment; one man opted to spend 10 days in jail in addition to time already served.

Some of the victims sat with their spouses in court that afternoon, arms draped around each other. Down the hall in the jury selection room, Dawn Center court advocate Michael Robinson counseled many of the women in hushed tones. It is an uphill battle, with no easy answers.

"I want to drop this thing," one woman said. "I just found out I'm pregnant, and me and my man have been talking."

Domestic violence offenses in Hernando County

1998 1,018
1997 1,099
1996 1,123
1995 1,141

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