Domestic violence victims to get better protection

Monday, February 14, 2011

For the first time in at least 30 years, lawmakers, law enforcement and court officials have recommended significant changes to actions being taken in Missouri to better protect victims of domestic violence and to hold their abusers accountable.

Attorney General Chris Koster announced the 12 recommendations Feb. 8, as suggested by the Task Force on Domestic Violence he created in September. Some of the recommendations are statutory changes while the others are "best practices" suggested for police and the courts.

"Victims of domestic violence are among our state's most vulnerable, and we owe it to them to make sure that we are working as seamlessly as possible through all aspects of our law enforcement and legal systems to protect them," Koster said in a news release issued by his office.

Allison Leonard, director of Cape Girardeau's Safe House for Women shelter, said she thinks the statutory changes will have a big effect on victims and the community as a whole.

"A big thing for taxpayers is none of these changes are going to cost the state anything, but it's going to make a big difference," Leonard said. "It's clearly not everything that everybody across the state recommended, but it's a good start."

What may have the largest effect on victims, Leonard said, is a recommendation to the Legislature to allow courts to impose supervised probation -- when appropriate -- for offenders guilty of misdemeanor domestic violence. Supervised probation is generally reserved for individuals found guilty of felony crimes.

The recommendation is to encourage accountability and discourage a repeated domestic violence offense.

"If they keep getting into trouble, someone's going to know about it," Leonard said. "They'll be held accountable."

Additional statutory changes suggested to the Legislature include not requiring a person to pay a fee when filing a motion to the court seeking enforcement of an existing order of protection and establish the Missouri Division of Probation and Parole as the agency authorized to develop standards for batterer intervention programs.

The task force also recommended a number of amendments for orders of protection, including allowing orders to be entered against juveniles.

Leonard said the amendment could do a lot in preventing dating violence among teenagers.

She also expressed support for a proposal for the Legislature to provide consistency in terminology for orders of protection.

Leonard said the task force recommended they include in orders definitions for domestic violence and abuse, among many other terms, meant to cover up any holes in the law.

"They'll have the same definition all across the board," she said. "It won't be as confusing and there will be little room for interpretation."

The final five suggestions, or "best practices" as the task force labeled them, identified actions the court system, mostly judges, could take to better monitor domestic violence offenders.

One recommendation encourages judges to better use a statute passed in 2004 giving them legal authority to require abusers to appear regularly at compliance hearings. Judges should use their ability to hold special docket days, the task force states in their report, to determine whether the domestic violence offenders are abiding by conditions of probation or a protection order, or both. The suggestion is meant to model the approach used in drug courts, the task force's report says.

Circuit Court Judge Benjamin F. Lewis said he hadn't heard of holding special docket days, but found the concept interesting.

"I don't know how it would work exactly, but if it would help, I know our judges are willing to do whatever has some prospect in making the situation better," he said.

Influencing an order to promote public safety, Boone County Circuit Court Judge Deborah Daniels spoke to the Task Force regarding her practice of using her authority over decisions regarding bond and conditions of release to hold domestic violence defendants accountable. Largely based on her testimony, the task force suggests judges make greater use of their authority to set conditions of bond for anyone violating a protection order.

Lewis said he, and most other judges in the 32nd circuit, always order the defendant to have no contact with the alleged victim in a domestic violence case. And bond is almost always set higher in a domestic violence case than in an assault case involving parties who don't know each other.

"If we hear that someone is tampering with a witness or violating their bond in any way a new bond is going to be set, one that the defendant will likely not be able to make," Lewis said.

"I think all of the judges here ... I think we're all on the same page. We all take domestic violence very seriously."

ehevern@semissourian.com

388-3635

Pertinent Address:

Jefferson City, MO

1810 E. Plaza Way, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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