Originally created 04/28/97

Family violence on the rise



Tamara Mitchell wanted justice after a fight with her boyfriend left her bleeding and her $300 gold necklace ruined.

The fight ended up in state court, where her boyfriend, Renard Woodard, was convicted of battery.

"I just wanted to get the situation settled," said Ms. Mitchell.

Ms. Mitchell is one of a growing number of women who are turning to the legal system to get help with violence at home.

Cases of family violence in state court are up more than 50 percent over last year, said Solicitor Sheryl Jolly.

"On average we're seeing 40 cases a week," she said. "People are starting to realize that domestic violence is a crime."

Ms. Jolly is glad to see these victims get help, but the increase in her court puts a strain on the office workload.

Family violence takes much more work to prosecute than most other misdemeanor crimes such as driving under the influence, she said.

Victims have to be tracked down, and many of them don't want to testify against their boyfriends or spouses. And while many other offenses have automatic bond levels set, every family violence defendant gets a bond hearing before a judge, which requires the presence of prosecutors.

Why the increase? Most experts believe that the incidence of family violence has not increased, but the willingness of victims to take their case to court has.

"Many women have decided they don't have to take this anymore," said Rebecca Balliew, coordinator of the solicitor's Victim/Witness Assistance Office.

"I've seen cases where there's just been some pushing and shoving. But then there's also been cases where women have been beaten by baseball bats or pipes," she said. "Some have had their head cracked open by beer bottles."

The cases are often just as hard on the victim as the defendant, she said. "Usually it's a person you care about and love, and that makes it doubly painful when they treat you in that manner."

Most cases involve married couples or boyfriend and girlfriend. But Ms. Balliew said she's seeing more family violence cases that involve siblings and more cases of elderly abuse.

Many victims are trapped in a paradoxical situation of trying to protect themselves or their children while keeping the family together.

"A lot of women contact the sheriff's office because they're hoping the abuser will get help," Ms. Balliew said. "They truly believe they can get the life they wanted with that person."

Education is the key to helping abusive family members, said Bob Le French, a counselor with Augusta Counseling Services. "We used to talk a lot about anger and violence in the old days. Now we talk more about power and control."

Mr. LeFrench offers a 10-week educational course that includes classes on control but also touches many of the other factors involved in family violence cases such as drug and alcohol abuse.

Mr. LeFrench said he didn't know how often his class members return to violence. "You don't usually get feedback from the victims," he said. "Many times the families are no longer intact."

One of the problems with counseling is the cost, Ms. Jolly said. The full 10 weeks costs around $300, which must be paid by the defendant.

Ms. Jolly is looking for grant money that would help indigent defendants pay for their counseling.

Mr. Woodard was found guilty Friday by Judge James E. Slaton. Among the terms of his sentence were a 12 month probation, $350 fine and compensation to Ms. Mitchell for the necklace that was broken.

Ms. Mitchell said she was satisfied with the outcome of the case and does not feel unsafe around Mr. Woodard.

In the future, a conviction could lead to automatic jail time, Ms. Jolly said.

A bill that would have required a mandatory five-day to five-year sentence for family violence was passed unanimously by the Senate but was not acted upon by the House, effectively killing it until at least next year's session.

Ms. Jolly said the bill, introduced by Sen. Mark Taylor, D-Albany, was not clearly written. She expects another bill will be passed next session that will require at least a minimum of two days behind bars.

"It would make people realize that if you beat your spouse there's going to be more than a slap on the wrist," she said.