HARTFORD — - When Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts started an anti-truancy program in 2006, his goal was to get children off the streets and back into their schools and homes.
But as the program took off, he quickly started to see a disturbing trend.
"We found that some of the young people didn't want to go back home because of the domestic violence that was going on there," Roberts said.
Then in 2008, domestic violence accounted for almost a quarter of all aggravated assaults. That prompted the department to take a look back, which showed that domestic violence had increased 216 percent over five years.
"In the past two years, a third of our aggravated assaults were domestic violence incidents," Roberts said. "We needed to find a better way to serve the public."
As a result, Roberts said, the department has formed a new domestic violence unit that will begin training this week and should start work by early February.
The unit will initially be staffed by a sergeant and two detectives working full time investigating serious domestic violence cases. The team will identify and track repeat offenders, develop a partnership with the chief state's attorney's office to track enforcement and prosecution, and help match families with advocacy services. The unit will also be involved in the investigation of all sexual assaults and crimes involving stalking.
Roberts said the domestic violence unit will bring something crucial to the department's operations.
"We're going to follow up," he said. That means keeping in touch with victims — and offenders — and checking to see if people are complying with restraining orders.
"We want to make sure the victim knows she's not alone," Roberts said.
Jennifer Lopez, advocacy program director for Interval House in Hartford, said following up with both victim and offender is key to the new unit's success or failure. Interval House, which provides services to victims of domestic violence, has been working with the police on developing the unit.
"It's important that it takes the responsibility [of following up with authorities] away from the victim," Lopez said, "and it will deter him from retaliation." Providing outreach and counseling for the offender could also help break the cycle of domestic violence, Lopez said.
"As long as we have batterers we'll have victims," she said.
Neither Roberts nor Lopez could say exactly why domestic violence is increasing in the city, but Roberts said a variety of factors could be contributing.
Studies have shown, for example, that poor people experience a higher rate of domestic violence. More than 30 percent of Hartford's population lives at or below the poverty line.
Marital status is also a determining factor, with divorced and separated women subject to the highest rates of victimization by an intimate partner, followed by women who have never married. In Hartford, 24 percent of households were led by a single parent, according to 2000 Census figures.
Lopez, who has worked with domestic violence victims from all socioeconomic backgrounds, said that economic factors may trigger violence, but are not the root cause.
"It's still a matter of trying to exert control," she said. "It's all about power and control."
Lopez suggested that batterers might not fear being held accountable for their actions, but she added that she was not criticizing the police or court system.
"I'm really looking forward to working in cooperation with the unit and the prosecutors," she said.
Assistant Police Chief Brian Heavren said the department will be trying to identify other potential triggers, such as a need for education.
But while Roberts agreed that domestic violence often increases in a bad economy, he believes that the city has too many families made up of young people who aren't ready for the pressures and responsibilities of parenthood. Trying to keep those families together in the aftermath of domestic violence is an important component of the city's program, which is why it will include counseling and social services.
"Punishment is part of what we do, but we want to make families whole," Roberts said. "A lot of people don't know what's out there for them."
Roberts said he would eventually like to see the domestic violence unit grow to four detectives, but budget constraints prevent that for now. The department is funding the program from its operating budget and expects to apply for grants. Roberts said he couldn't put a dollar figure on what the unit will cost this year, but knows the price of doing nothing.
"It will cost us the lives of women and children," he said.
Roberts said he expects the number of domestic violence incidents to decrease in 2010 as a result of the unit's operation, but he's also thinking of the long-term impact: fewer children exposed to domestic violence who then become offenders, themselves, later.
"You have to think not about right now, but 10 years from now," he said.
estimated family violence incidents in Connecticut year-to-date, based on 2007 data.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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