Prosecutor: Domestic violence investigations evolved from telling victims ‘learn how to be a good wife’

Maeghan Maloney
Carter F. McCall | BDN
Maeghan Maloney Buy Photo
Posted Sept. 30, 2013, at 12:39 p.m.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. To read the first part, visit http://bdn.to/lka1.

Motivated by the murder of Amy Lake and her children, Coty and Monica, by her estranged husband Steven Lake in June 2011, members of law enforcement and community assistance agencies in Dexter and nearby Dover-Foxcroft have formed a team aimed at avoiding such tragedies in the future.

Piscataquis County is not the first to form a high-risk response team. York County has had a similar team for 10 years and Cumberland County has had one for the past four years. Penobscot County started a task force in the northern part of the county this summer.

Somerset County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said she recently received a grant so her county can have a team as well.

Much like Piscataquis County, Somerset has a major issue with domestic violence homicides. There have been nine domestic violence homicides there in the past eight years.

“Our goal is zero domestic violence homicides,” Maloney said recently. “The intention around this team is to identify those cases with the greatest potential for a homicide.”

According to the Department of Public Safety, a domestic violence homicide is a killing involving those living in the same household, direct relatives or those involved in a relationship.

If successful, Maloney said the Somerset County model will be implemented in northern Kennebec County and then the southern portion of the county.

Margo Batsie, member services coordinator for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said the organization will work diligently next year to help other counties start their own high-risk response teams with training and policy development.

“I’ve heard from every single county. They’re either in very serious planning stages [of creating a high-risk response team] or it’s on the top of their priority list,” she said.

Maloney wants to avoid failures in Somerset County by ensuring nobody falls through cracks in the system.

To do that, the team in Somerset County will look at the victim’s need for housing, substance abuse treatment and monitoring by law enforcement.

“We’ll tackle the case from every single part of what’s needed,” said Maloney.

To help identify the most serious cases that may lead to a homicide, she said her team will use two identifying factors — Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment, or ODARA, which looks at how many incidents the aggressor has had with police, and the Campbell Analysis, which tracks whether the rate and severity of the assaults has increased.

“When you combine them, we can be sure we’re not having a case fall through the cracks because they look at domestic violence from two different viewpoints,” said Maloney.

The greater the number of incidents, the higher number the person will receive with ODARA, which is used by law enforcement. By law, all police in the state must be trained to use ODARA by Jan. 1, 2015.

The Campbell Analysis is used by the Family Violence Project, a key member of the Somerset County response team.

“If the violence is increasing in severity, that’s a huge danger sign,” she said. “That means the person is becoming more and more comfortable with committing greater and greater acts of violence.”

The abusers are usually violent in relationships throughout their lives, said Maloney.

Sarah, a woman who sought the help of the Piscataquis County Domestic Violence High Risk Response Team, dealt with fear, isolation and threats from her abuser. Sarah, who did want to use her real name, said she knew he wouldn’t change.

“[I received] a lot of threats that you want to believe aren’t true, but you know what you’ve been through already, so you don’t want to take anything for granted,” she said.

Sarah’s abuser, who is now in jail, didn’t start with her, Sarah said.

“He hurt others too. This is a long history of violence with him. It didn’t start with me and I’m sure it won’t end with me,” she said.

Ensuring safety

A major issue in prosecuting domestic violence cases is getting the victim to testify, as the victim is often the only witness to the abuse.

Keeping the victim safe is a top priority for high-risk response teams. Maloney said there is a domestic violence shelter in Somerset County that can take in victims, especially when the victim is dependent on the abuser for housing.

Sarah said the Piscataquis County team helped her get protection orders and accompanied her to court hearings — something she said she wouldn’t have done without the team’s help.

“I didn’t feel alone and scared [when they were with me],” she said. “I feel safer [since talking to the team].”

Maloney recently took an unusual step in order prosecute a man she described as an “incredibly dangerous person” after a two-day-long domestic violence assault.

The man’s alleged victim, Jessica Ruiz, was arrested on a material witness warrant in mid-September because Maloney said Ruiz reportedly didn’t want to testify against her alleged abuser, Robert A. Robinson.

“We won’t use [the material witness warrant] often. It’s only for the cases where if I didn’t use it, I’d be in the position of talking about why she was killed,” said Maloney, who is also the district attorney for Kennebec County.

Robinson is scheduled to appear in Kennebec County Superior Court in October on charges of domestic violence assault, domestic violence criminal threatening and domestic violence terrorizing.

Changing attitudes

Police, district attorneys and advocates coming together to form these high-risk response teams emphasize the change in attitude toward domestic violence in the past few decades.

Somerset County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Dale Lancaster began his law enforcement career in 1974. Back then, police responded very differently to a domestic assault, he said.

“When I started in law enforcement it was considered a family issue,” Lancaster said. “I would go to a home and you could see, more often than not, the female had been assaulted. Because I didn’t actually see it, I could not make an arrest. How we investigate those crimes has changed.”

“The evolution has been dramatic,” said Maloney. “I’ve had officers tell me that when they started their career, when they responded to a domestic violence incident, what they were told to say was ‘You need to go back inside and learn how to be a good wife.’”

Gov. Paul LePage has made combating domestic violence a priority. Maloney said the governor’s openness on the issue has been helpful.

“I appreciate that he has made this an important issue and has been willing to talk about his own experience,” she said.

The town of Dexter has taken its own approach to help combat domestic violence. The town has formed the Dexter Community Domestic Violence Response Team, which is not a high-risk response team. Instead, the team gathers entities from the community — government, social service, health care, police, education, clergy, media and employers — to help understand their roles when it comes to domestic violence.

“It’s really to have an understanding of how people are affected by victims and perpetrators. Some may not recognize the signs,” said Linda-Jean Briggs, Dexter’s town manager.

The team meets once a month to discuss strategies.

“For employers, it may be changes in workplace policies,” said Art Jette, community outreach advocate for Womancare, a support and advocacy group dedicated to ending domestic abuse. “To allow victims of abuse to have certain safety privileges. Have the assistance of their employer keep them from [being] harassed by their abuser.”

A community approach is what will make the biggest dent in combating domestic violence, said Jette.

“People aren’t going to wake up the next day and say, ‘I’m not going to be abusive anymore,’” he said. “At some point, people are who they’re going to be. … They learn from their own experiences as a child because they grew up in a household where [men mistreated women]. For them, that’s just as normal as anything.”

Although national statistics show men are also victims of domestic violence, the incidence is lower than women. The Centers for Disease Control found in a 2010 study that one in four women reported being the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime. The same study found one in seven men reported being victims.

It’s up to men to stand up to other men, said Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Robert Young.

“Men are the predominant aggressors here. I think it starts with fathers teaching their kids that, ‘This is how you treat women,’” said Young. “And when men begin to say to other men, ‘That’s not right. It’s not the way it should be. That’s not acceptable,’ [is when change will occur]. The solution is men taking it as their problem and working among each other to change attitudes.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

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