County and city officials hope new measures will prevent abuse, save lives
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 28, 2009 - If a piece of paper won't prevent abusers from hurting and killing their partners, maybe the threat of jail will. That's the goal of St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Michael Burton, who's organized a special four-judge Domestic Violence Court. Later this fall, Burton will be one of two judges who will hear only motions of contempt involving orders of protection.
"This is something that will be pretty significant in addressing repeat offenders. I'm hoping it will make a big difference," Burton said.
STALKING, TALKING MAY RESULT IN A YEAR IN JAIL
Previously, if an abuser violated an order of protection, the victim's best recourse was to seek criminal charges. But that rarely happened, for a variety of reasons:
- Many provisions of an order of protection, such as mandated child support after the abuser moves out, could not be addressed in criminal court;
- Prosecuting attorneys who don't know the history of the parties may not recognize the seriousness of violations like phone calls and repeated drive-bys that don't involve physical injury;
- Criminal trials often take place only many months after an alleged offense.
In March, the new domestic violence court began hearing petitions for orders of protection. To make very sure petitioners understand their rights, judges will soon begin handing out forms entitled, "What to do when your order of protection Is violated," including information available online. Filing forms will be user-friendly and widely available in the courthouse.
In November, the court will begin charging abusers with indirect contempt for any criminal violation (such as unwanted contact and communication) or civil infraction (including failure to make payments) regarding an order of protection, which could result in jail time of up to one year. In cases of indirect civil contempt, the offender may avoid jail time by correcting the behavior; in cases of criminal contempt, the abuser can be made to serve the entire sentence. It's a move that's being applauded by many who work with abused women or abusive men.
"It's a revolutionary community response, which truly holds abusers accountable," said Janeen McGee, executive director of Raven, a treatment center for men who batter.
But it's not a panacea, according to Ellen Reed, executive director of Lydia's House women's shelter. "Criminal charges for violating an OP will only mean something to those who do not want to be called up in front of a judge or go to jail. Ultimately, the only thing that stops abuse is the abuser. But criminal charges can certainly influence those who care about being arrested."
NEW PROCEDURES SEND MORE ABUSERS TO TREATMENT
An order of protection is a signed form forbidding someone from stalking, abusing or disturbing the peace of the petitioner, entering that person's home or initiating communication in any form for six months to a year. In addition to addressing child support, it may also mandate mortgage, rent or shelter payments or order the respondent to undergo court-approved treatment for batterers.
Before the initiation of this special court, judges rarely ordered counseling. Their legal ability to enforce treatment orders without relying on a prosecutor only came about a few years ago. Greater understanding of the new law, coupled with petitioners' enhanced abilities to file motions, has now resulted in an increase in clients at Raven, a local batterer intervention program. For the first time, counselors are helping men immediately after abuse has occurred, rather than much later, following prosecution, rendering of a verdict and sentencing.
"By the time we wait for a crime to happened, you're talking about going back and working with some fairly ingrained behavior," McGee said.
Many men accused of -- but not charged with -- abuse resist counseling orders in an order of protection. Their opposition only serves to illustrate their need for intervention, McGee said.
"The fact that they're telling me that I need to determine that they don't need to be in the program shows they've got control issues," McGee said.
ST. LOUIS ALSO TAKING EXTRA STEPS
Some of Raven's increased caseload comes from St. Louis, whose law enforcement officers have recently undergone new training, resulting in better recognition of domestic violence. The city has also recently set up Raven counseling sessions for inmates inside medium-security institutions. Intervention there is all the more valuable because the inmates are never far apart from each other.
"They all live together, so they process it and talk about it. They see each others' behavior and discuss that in a group," McGee said.
To graduate from Raven, whether a client is incarcerated or not, he must attend 48 hours of sessions. While they're offered once a week, it takes many people up to two years to complete the course due to missed classes.
Another change the city has initiated stems from the Sept. 18 murder of 27-year-old Melissa Amerson. Amerson was shot and killed by her former partner and father of three of her children, Rodney Morris, 37, as she loaded them and her other child into the family van. She had filed for, and received, a temporary ex-parte order of protection, but the day before she died she did not show up for a court hearing that would have likely extended the order.
According to St. Louis Circuit Court Clerk Mariano Favazza, Morris was never served with papers because the only address Amerson gave was for Morris' work -- in St. Louis County, not the city. The end result: Neither the city nor the county serves Morris or ordered his appearance in court. But the extension of the ex parte order did not depend on Morris' appearance, Favazza said. Amerson could have gotten it even in his absence.
To expedite justice for others, after Amerson's murder, the city began immediately to fax and e-mail, rather than hand-carry, orders of protection to St. Louis and Jefferson counties, when they involve addresses there. The goal is to ensure better accuracy and speed up the process. But no type or degree of legal intervention will hold back a determined murderer, according to Favazza, who believes Melissa Amerson never had a chance.
"I don't think it would have made a nickel's worth of difference if he had been served," Favazza said. "I think he would have still gone over and killed her."
Nancy Larson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.