Attacking violence against women

Sunday, February 1, 2004

They used fists, knives and sometimes guns to hurt the people closest to them, usually women. Many offenders were convicted but some weren't.

Cape Girardeau police recorded 598 domestic assaults between January 2002 and December 2003. That's essentially a new case every 29.3 hours.

But at both the local and state level, plans are in motion to prevent violence against women and to better meet the needs of the victims.

The city needs an officer who specializes in crimes against women, local advocates say.

That's why the police department recently applied for a grant from the Missouri Department of Public Safety to create a new position to investigate domestic and sexual assaults, Lt. Tracy Lemonds said. Final approval may come within two weeks.

At the same time, the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services is developing a statewide initiative to prevent domestic abuse. On Friday morning, state workers presented a draft of their plan -- "Violence Against Women: Missouri State Prevention Plan, Strategies for Action" -- to 30 people at a town hall meeting at Southeast Missouri State University. The goal is to unite smaller agencies that deal with domestic violence around the state into a larger whole, said Joy Oesterly, injury prevention director for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Tammy Gwaltney, executive director of the SEMO Network Against Sexual Violence, wrote the grant proposal to pay for a new police officer in collaboration with the department, she said.

If approved, police would use the STOP Violence Against Women grant to cover the costs in creating the new job. The $41,108 grant requires annual renewal and a 25 percent match from the city. The local contribution would be provided through the police budget and an in-kind match, totaling $10,354.

According to the proposal, the STOP officer would earn a base salary of $30,472, and the officer's supervisor would receive $2,628 annually. In addition, $207 would cover the costs of a pager and office supplies, and a university student would be offered a 20-hour internship assisting the STOP officer with administrative duties for $103.

The STOP officer would work during peak domestic call hours -- evenings and weekends, Lemonds said.

The Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department has had a STOP officer since March of 1999. The county investigated 90 domestic violence reports in 2003 and 85 in 2002, said Capt. Ruth Ann Dickerson.

Jackson police do not have a specific officer to investigate such reports, said Capt. Robert Hull. "We've looked at applying for some grants at the beginning of the year but not specifically that one," he said.

Having one officer investigate Cape Girardeau's domestic and sexual assaults would result in more successful prosecutions, Lemonds said. Investigative reports would have continuity and the officer could develop a stronger rapport with victims than could a slew of different patrolmen and detectives.

The grant proposal specifies the police department's problems. Currently, domestic and sexual abuse victims may deal with several officers with various levels of experience. Some officers are uncomfortable with the subject and don't respond as well. If a case needs further investigation, any one of 10 detectives may be assigned.

"This 'random assignment' makes collaboration with community and domestic violence centers disjointed and provides no continuity with the county prosecutor," the proposal says.

Prosecutors, judges and local family crisis centers want a "go to" person for such cases, Lemonds said.

The Safe House for Women in Cape Girardeau answered more than 750 hotline crisis calls in 2003 and provided 2,200 "bed nights" for 125 families, said executive director Lisa Barnes. This was a slight increase over 2002. The shelter opened in 1991 and has 13 staff members. Often the Safe House is dealing with the same family more than once, but a different police officer handles each separate incident.

"If one person is in charge of the investigations, then that person could be our contact too," Barnes said.

The police department currently has a staff shortage due to resignations and illness. Time is valuable and domestic calls can take hours to investigate. But if a STOP officer assumes control of the domestic call scene, then the patrol officer who initially responds could return to duty faster, Lemonds said.

Broader perspective

Cape Girardeau is one of 11 cities around the state where public input is being sought for the state's strategic plan, said Oesterly of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The state's plan has five areas of emphasis: collecting and using data about violence against women; developing resources to prevent abuse and help women leave violent environments; building community coalitions and involving men; discouraging violence through media and public information; and developing anti-violence strategies for child-rearing education programs, schools and child care and senior care workers.

Utilizing men in a "peers-teaching-peers" fashion needs to be part of that initiative, especially with adolescents and teens, Oesterly said.

"Because by and large, it is men who are committing acts of violence against women," she said.

The plan also looks to develop policies to identify and treat juvenile and adult perpetrators at the earliest possible stage.

Reactions to the plan were mixed, judging by the audience at the university on Friday. The state's intentions were generally accepted, but some questioned where the money would come from to fund the roll-out and whether the plan shouldn't start earlier by reaching out to families before a child enters school.

"Even if we're in the kindergartens, we're already five years too late in that child's life," Gwaltney said.

She suggested the plan help medical professionals share information about violence prevention during prenatal care visits.

"School is too late," she said. "... We've go to start with the parents before they're parents."

Other suggestions included designating one state office to be an information hub for domestic violence issues, finding ways to engage the private sector to fund prevention activities and developing programs to train advocates on educating others.

Oesterly said the suggestions would be compiled with those from the other cities and worked into the next draft of the plan. The key is to make it flexible, she said.

"This is a living plan that will change and grow to meet the needs of every community," she said.

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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