Prosecutor: Domestic Violence One of Most Under-Reported Crimes

​Story and Photo by Joe Gamm | Jefferson City News Tribune​
 
Domestic violence reports in Jefferson City dropped significantly (about 40 percent) from 2019-20, according to data from the Missouri Highway Patrol.
 
And reports in Cole County overall remained flat, the data show.
 
That would be encouraging, but what’s more likely is that domestic assaults actually increased — significantly, Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Locke Thompson said.
 
Overall statewide, reports of domestic assault soared by more than 60 percent.
 
The data showed 188 offenses (assault, battery, coercion, harassment, sexual assault or unlawful imprisonment) reported in Jefferson City in 2020, which was down from 314 in 2019. In 2018, there were 272.
 
However, the pandemic has forced spouses, partners, families, relatives and close friends to spend more time together. Sometimes that can be a bad thing.

“What I think we saw — what we did see — was an increase in more first-time offenses, but a decrease in the repeat offenses. The reporting was less,” Thompson said.

Why is uncertain. However, Thompson points out that domestic violence is one of the most under-reported crimes his office contends with.

Despite fewer reports, domestic violence continues to require a volume of prosecutors’ time. Enough so, that Thompson’s office applied for and received a federal Violence Against Women Act grant, which pays for the majority of an assistant prosecutor’s salary. The grant allows the county to dedicate an assistant prosecutor full-time to handling only domestic violence cases.

His office designated Assistant Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Miranda Loesch as the domestic violence prosecutor.

“She handles all of those cases,” Thompson said. “She’s got a significant caseload. I haven’t run her specific numbers for a little bit. But, you’re talking over 300 cases that she’s got.”

Prosecuting the offenders

Victims of domestic violence are encouraged to call 573-634-6400 to file a report. More information is available on the Cole County website, colecounty.org/469/domestic-violence.

Law enforcement agencies do a very good job of investigating reports of abuse, Thompson said.

Anytime law enforcement produces a probable cause statement, his office begins reviewing the case. In situations where the safety of alleged victims is in question, there is a little more urgency.

Law enforcement tries to assure people who do come forward with allegations are as safe as can be, he said.

The office connects alleged victims with resources, including the Rape and Abuse Crisis Service.

“But, obviously, the Rape and Abuse Crisis Service can only take so many people at a time,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation.”

In many cases — in which the victims aren’t in immediate danger — the office is able to collect reports and photographs, and review them before making charging decisions, he said.

At that point, the case will go before an associate circuit court judge or go to the Cole County Grand Jury.

Evaluations are done on a case-by-case basis.

“If it’s a dangerous offender, we try to make sure we handle that properly,” Thompson said. “If we think prison is the appropriate answer, we try to make sure that happens. But at the end of the day, what we want to try to do is make sure that victim is safe going forward.”

Unfortunately, he said, victims may oftentimes be uncooperative, if not outright hostile toward prosecutor’s office as it tries to prosecute the case.

“That’s part of the cycle of domestic violence that we want to try to find a way to break,” he added.

In cases where the prosecutor’s office determines the offender should serve probation, rather than prison time, it requires defendants to complete the Missouri Batterer Intervention Program (BIP).

Changing the narrative

The BIP, developed in conjunction with the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (MCADSV), is a component of a coordinated community response intended to hold batterers accountable for violence and abuse. It includes community education, building awareness that results in a zero-tolerance response to domestic violence.

“Communities need to develop and maintain community responses that bring together all organizations and systems that have contact with survivors or perpetrators of domestic violence,” according to standards for BIP on the Missouri Department of Public Safety website. “The primary method of intervention shall be group discussions, led by trained co-facilitators, using an established curriculum that includes strategies to hold the offender accountable for the violence in the offender’s intimate relationship.”

Discussions of violent and/or coercive behaviors during group sessions help identify and confront offenders’ controlling behaviors, the program standards state.

Community leaders have developed a Cole County Domestic Violence Response Team — a partnership between the prosecutor’s office, Lincoln University, RACS, the Cole County Sheriff’s Office and the Jefferson City Police Department.

The team’s goal is to create a program that specifically addresses the issue of domestic violence, Thompson said.

Law enforcement leaders would like to see the county initiate a Domestic Violence Court, Cole County Circuit Judge Cotton Walker said.

The county already has four treatment (alternative) courts — DWI Court, Adult Drug Court, Veterans Court and Co-Occurring Treatment Court (for people with dual diagnoses of substance use disorder and mental health disorders). Walker supervises the treatment courts.

There are a number of domestic violence, or domestic abuse, courts that might act as models for such a court in Cole County, Walker said.

Kansas City and St. Louis each has a domestic violence treatment court that the U.S. Department of Justice has named a mentor court. The Kansas City Municipal Domestic Violence Court (KCMDVC) has received a federal grant to help train other courts around the nation how to create what is known as a compliance docket.

Courts establish compliance dockets to supervise high-risk offenders. The dockets are intended to improve victim safety and hold offenders accountable through increased supervision and a holistic approach toward their needs, according to the KCMDVC brochure.

Breaking the cycle of violence

“Our treatment court administrator and I are communicating with St. Louis County,” Walker said. “They are hosting a virtual open house (soon). We’re going to continue to research it and work with our prosecutors to come up with the best way to reduce recidivism and reduce caseloads.”

Walker said the coordinator of the St. Louis court contacted his office Wednesday last week, beginning preparations for the open house.

It’s not a short-term process, he continued.

“We want to take the time to do it right. We want to take the right approach,” he said.

Most of the administrators of the county’s treatment court recently attended a state conference on all treatment courts, Walker said.

They discussed successes and failures.

A recent failure was the Domestic Abuse Court in Greene County.

The Southern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals in September 2019 ordered the county to halt the court permanently because domestic abuse courts hadn’t been established under Missouri law.

There were several mistakes in that program, Walker said.

However, Walker still feels confident a domestic violence court is a reachable goal.

“It’s obviously something that is important, because like some of the other types of cases that come to treatment courts, those who have one offense often have more than one offense,” Walker said. “It’s a perfect type of case to explore, trying to get a specialty court to address it.”

Much like people who are found to be driving while intoxicated, if a person gets a second DWI, they’re likely to get a third, Walker said.

That makes them “high risk, high need,” he said.

“It really is an effort for community wellness,” Walker added.

Creating a domestic violence court will be challenging, Thompson said, because it is a victim-centered violent crime, while other courts deal with crimes that (for the most part) are victimless.

“So, one thing we want to try to make sure we do is to get those people — who are caught as victims — out of that cycle,” he said.

Judges have also mentioned beginning with a domestic violence docket, a smaller step than a treatment court, Thompson said.

That way, the cases take place in the same settings and the courts can look at cases through the course of a morning or afternoon.

Missouri and domestic violence

A little more than a decade ago, Missouri took steps to curb domestic violence. In 2010, the Attorney General’s Task Force on Domestic Violence made numerous legal recommendations to reduce violence and protect victims.

Then-Gov. Jay Nixon signed the majority of the recommendations into law the following year after it passed unanimously through the General Assembly, according to Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s website, ago.mo.gov/criminal-division/public-safety/domestic-violence.

Among other things, the new law made it easier to get protection orders and to renew the orders. It required law enforcement to enter information, including information about child custody, into the Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System within 24 hours of changes.

It added domestic violence to offenses (with abuse or stalking) for which the state issues ex parte orders of protection. It allowed courts to investigate whether termination of protective orders are voluntary.

The new law added victims’ schools or places of employment to places where protection orders are in effect. It included some automatic renewals.

It added communication media to the ways that respondents may not communicate with alleged victims.

The law made it a felony for someone who has been found guilty of violating an ex parte order within the past five years to violate another ex parte order.

Chris Nuelle, press secretary for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, said AG involvement in domestic violence cases is limited.

“We do prosecute certain domestic violence cases, but we’re limited in our jurisdiction as we don’t have original criminal jurisdiction,” Nuelle said. “A local prosecutor would have to invite us in, which does happen.”

And, the AG defends every single domestic violence conviction in Missouri through appeals, he pointed out.

Additionally, the AG assists with the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services in its domestic violence training for local prosecutors.

Federal laws intended to decrease domestic violence also are at play in Jefferson City.

An example is that all schools that receive federal funding are required by Title IX to respond to intimate partner violence, sexual violence or stalking.

The federal government requires those institutions to offer training and efforts to assure students are aware of their rights, said Zakiya Brown, Lincoln University Title IX coordinator.

The then-President Donald Trump administration published new regulations for Title IX in August, Brown said.

“We must increase awareness, reduce incidents and offer remedies,” she added.

The focus for Title IX has been getting students to be more aware of their options and to make them more comfortable coming forward to report incidents, Brown said.

She’s trying to change the culture around trust, she added. And letting students know they can speak to her if they think they need help.

“Can (students) trust the institution to remedy, prevent and stop the incidents from happening? With that, what we have done is partner with student organizations to host conversations around healthy relationships,” Brown said. “Helping them identify signs of abuse whether physical, mental or emotional.”

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt created a public safety announcement about a year ago that focuses on the risks created by isolation caused by the coronavirus.

“If you are trapped,” Schmitt says in the PSA, “Know that there are resources available to help.”

And he reminds viewers the national hotline for domestic violence and abuse is 1-800-799-7233 or hotline.org.

“Please remain vigilant in looking out for families friends and neighbors,” he said. “With everyone’s help, we can get help to those who need it most and get through this crisis together.”

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