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Violence intervention effort working


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000

The city of Largo is to be commended for finding money in its budget to continue its domestic violence intervention program. Given the program's proven track record of success, it's a wonder the city ever considered discarding the project in the first place.

Now it is up to officials from Largo, Pinellas County and other area municipalities to look for opportunities to replicate Largo's winning formula around the county and sustain it for years to come.

For the past three years, Largo has used grant money from the federal government to pay a full-time domestic violence specialist and several part-time employees. The full-time specialist, Victor Gittens, is a licensed clinical social worker. The team counsels parents and children when violence occurs, and the counselors often travel to the scene with officers to assist victims.

Coupled with a Web site that makes secure information and photographs of abuse complaints available to key players such as judges and prosecutors, the program has had a major impact. Judicial officials get the information to make bail decisions quickly, while domestic violence advocates can rapidly assess and respond to victims' needs.

Together, the initiatives have helped to reduce domestic violence arrests from 593 in 1998 to 356 last year. This year, police project they will make 252 arrests -- a reduction of more than half. Those numbers are all the more remarkable in light of a policy stating officers must make arrests whenever they find probable cause, even if the victim is reluctant to press charges. Nearly 85 percent of the cases police refer to the State Attorney's Office are being pursued, which is indicative of strong evidence against offenders.

"I think the word is getting out," Gittens told the Times. "You don't want to be picked up for domestic violence in Largo. And studies have shown victims are more likely to cooperate when they believe authorities are concerned about their safety."

But Largo's $84,000 annual grant is set to expire in December. And city leaders, who had been kicking in only $28,000 to pay for one-fourth of the specialists' salaries, feared having to foot the bill for the program alone.

Facing pay raises for firefighters, paramedics and other staff, the city had not planned to fund the intervention specialists. But they dipped into undesignated reserves for a recommended $93,000, in part because of commissioners such as Pat Gerard, who once worked as a victim advocate for the police department:

"When you find something that works, you should find a way to keep it," she told her colleagues last month.

We agree. Largo should now go a step further and look for ways to make the costs of the specialists a recurring line item in the budget. Outgoing police Chief Jerry Bloechle served on Pinellas' Domestic Violence Task Force and did much to raise the issue's profile countywide. When he leaves Oct. 1, acting Chief Judy Gershkowitz, Bloechle's successor, and future city councils should continue to be strong advocates for this program.

Representatives on Pinellas' Domestic Violence Task force should also look for ways to duplicate Largo's success in other parts of the county. There are scattered efforts to provide victim advocates, but families in parts of Pinellas remain uncovered. The Safe Start grant, designed to reduce the impact of violence on young children, is a good place to start looking for relief. Though Safe Start is still in the planning stages, community groups involved in planning how Safe Start will be used should consider providing on-site intervention for families with part of the $3-million grant.

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