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Domestic Violence: A New Vigilance

Josh Kovner

July 18, 2010

The new domestic-violence laws rolling out this month and in October born of a string of assaults and murders and the media attention that followed represent the most concentrated attack on these crimes in 24 years, say prosecutors and advocates.

Nancy Tyler appreciates the reach of the laws, which touch the police, the courts, landlords, emergency shelters, schools, protective-order violators and victims.

A mother and a lawyer in Hartford, Tyler was a victim of one of the highly publicized crimes since early 2009 that marshaled the attention of the media and politicians in a sustained way not seen since Tracey Thurman, victimized by a brutal husband and some apathetic police officers in Torrington, sued the state and won landmark reforms in 1986.

In fact, a new monitoring program for offenders that starts Oct. 1 a GPS system that tracks protective-order violators and alerts the victim when the offender comes within a certain distance might have prevented the crime that has changed Tyler's life.

Tyler's estranged husband, Richard Shenkman, was charged with kidnapping her at her workplace downtown, assaulting her, handcuffing her in her home in South Windsor, pressing a pistol to her head and later burning down the house. Tyler, cuffed at one point to a hook in the basement wall, yanked herself free and escaped before the fire.

"They acted, and just in time," Tyler said of the legislators. "My hope is the legislation will make a difference in the long-term for the next generation, and in the short-term for women out there who are in danger and suffering."

Tyler is talking on the phone from work, 16 floors above the darkened parking garage from which she was abducted. It is the afternoon of July 6, one day before the first anniversary of her abduction.

She pauses midstream, and seems to struggle to speak.

"I'm having constant flashbacks, non-stop" Tyler says after a moment. "I keep putting myself back inside that morning, running it over and over in my head."

A Complex Crime

Tyler has revealed a place inside her where the new legislation and new initiatives can't reach. It is the lonely place that only victims and family members know.

Advocates, prosecutors and judges know domestic violence to be one of the most complex and elusive crimes there is.

Despite the stirrings over the past year of a grass-roots movement that reminds some of the beginning of the drunken-driving awareness campaigns, domestic violence remains a grossly underreported crime, where victims are often hesitant to call police or to cooperate with prosecutors.

But there have been some good signs from the front lines in the past year more victims appear to be coming forward to report abuse and more offenders are being placed in, and successfully finishing, either of the state's two intensive 26-week batterer-prevention programs.

"To my surprise, they work," said Tony Basilica, one of the busiest criminal defense lawyers in the New London courthouses. "When I thought my clients were going to say the programs were a waste of time, it was just the opposite.

"One guy told me he'd grown up in a household dominated by the father. The father said 'jump' and the children and the mom said, 'how high?' He said he realized from the program that you don't treat people that way."

And judges are more apt to hold jail time over the heads of offenders to encourage them to complete the counseling, which can be as many as 52 sessions.

Several factors came together over the last year to heighten the public's focus on family and dating violence. These included a recession that hit Connecticut hard, advocacy work by the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, initiatives by area high school students and teachers and a legislative task force formed by House Speaker Chris Donovan in November 2009.

The Courant and Fox CT began their Battered Lives series in August 2009 after former Fox assignment editor Alice Morrin was murdered by her husband in her home in Vernon on June 28, and after Tyler was abducted in July.

In January, Tyler told her story at a news briefing at the state Capitol that introduced the legislative agenda for the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

It was a package for which advocates had been pushing for years around-the-clock coverage at emergency shelters, more funding for victims' services, more consistency in the way domestic violence cases are handled in court. The words of Tyler, and passionate calls for more resources and tougher penalties from people in the trenches, such as Windham State's Attorney Patricia Froehlich, put a human face on the issues.

For many in the media and in public life in Connecticut, the pleas were heard, really heard, for the first time. The bills that the legislative task force came up with in February, and that were unanimously endorsed in May, closely followed the coalition's agenda and built on that momentum.

"We were in the right place at the right time with the right people pushing this forward," said state Rep. Mae Flexer, D- Killingly, who chaired the legislative panel.

"There's been task forces before where people get together and talk and nothing happens," Froehlich said from her office in the Danielson courthouse. "This one looked, listened, learned and acted. Domestic violence laws are improved or tweaked every year, but this is the most significant package to come out of the legislature since 1986 because it addresses domestic violence from multiple perspectives.

The initiatives include the experimental GPS program, early-intervention training for teachers and school counselors in domestic and dating violence, 24-hour staffing for emergency shelters, a provision that allows a victim to break an apartment lease to escape violence, and the addition of more court dockets that focus exclusively on these crimes.

'A Fighting Chance'

Alvin Notice started pressing hard for a GPS system after his daughter, University of Hartford student Tiana Notice, was stalked and stabbed to death by in February 2009. Her ex-boyfriend is charged with murder.

Alvin Notice lobbied advocates and legislators to support a program that alerted the victim when a protective-order violator had breached pre-set buffer zones and was closing in.

"Not everyone was behind it," Notice said. "I looked people in the eye and said, 'I understand that just putting a bracelet on someone is meaningless unless the victim is warned.' I told them, 'The piece I want to bring to this is the notification of the female, so she can have a fighting chance. Consider it another tool to fight the battle.'?"

The GPS bill gained crucial support in the spring. Judicial officials were sold "on the emphasis this places on the victim," said Stephen R. Grant, head of the Family Services Division and one of the architects of the "First Alert" program. Grant said a common thread in several of the domestic violence murders in Connecticut over the last year was "that the victim had no clue the offender was in close proximity."

The monitoring will start as a pilot program in the Hartford, Bridgeport and Danielson court districts; the latter was chosen because officials want to see how the satellite and cellphone technology work in a rural area. Those who violate the terms of a protective order would be assessed for dangerousness, and a judge would decide whether to assign them to the program. There's enough money about $140,000 to hook up 21 offenders a day for six months. First Alert won't continue past March 2011 unless additional funding can be found.

Also over the past year, several police departments strengthened or started units that specialize in domestic violence investigations. In Hartford, where a third of the city's aggravated assaults involve people in relationships or family members, a new DV squad, with a sergeant and two detectives, was introduced in April.

Several Superior Court judges, particularly Barbara Bellis in Derby, Susan Handy in New London and Maria Kahn in Bridgeport, started or refined domestic violence dockets in their courthouses that resulted in better monitoring of offenders and a greater level of accountability.

Bellis said a high number of routine domestic violence cases misdemeanor breaches of peace or assaults where there was not a serious injury are still nolled, or not prosecuted.

"But we earn our nolles now," said Bellis, who trains new judges in handling domestic violence cases.

She said defendants frequently are required to enter a guilty plea and attend counseling sessions under the threat of jail time. Only upon completion of the program is the case nolled.

"Over the course of a program like Evolve, with 52 sessions, a defendant could be back in court several dozen times, seeing the same judge, the same prosecutor, the same victim advocate. And he's got the jail sentence hanging over his head. That can make a tremendous impression," said Bellis.

The new legislation calls for the addition of three domestic violence dockets, which would mean that 12 of the 20 geographical area courts the courts that hear the less serious cases would have the specialized teams. (The most serious family crimes, such as murders, kidnappings or aggravated assaults, go to the upper courts.)

"I hate to use the word 'significant,' because we deal in incremental steps and small victories, but having more than half of your 20 [lower] courts with dedicated DV dockets is significant," said Assistant State's Attorney Kevin Dunn, who travels the state helping with the crowded dockets and difficult cases. "It puts Connecticut in the forefront."

'Out By 4 O'Clock'

But court officials, law officers and advocates, while acknowledging the strides that have been made over the last year, said several serious, deeply entrenched problems remain. These include a flawed bail system that allows unscrupulous bondsman to secure the release of offenders without charging them a penny up front, and a lack of consistency in the way domestic violence cases are handled in courthouses across the state.

"You tell the victim that bail was set at $100,000 for the guy that assaulted her and watch her eyes light up," said Kathy Verano-Berkel, supervisory family-violence victim advocate in the New London and Norwich courts. "All the while I'm thinking, 'Yup, he'll be out by 4 o'clock.' ?"

Verano-Berkel and others also worry that there won't be enough money next year to fund this year's initiatives.

The victim-alert GPS system will end up being a six-month experiment unless the judicial branch can land new funding. Grant, head of family services, said offenders who can afford to pay will be billed for the cost of the monitoring equipment. But he said there's no way to tell how much revenue that will generate until several months have passed.

The legislature authorized $1.75 million to pay for around-the-clock staffing for emergency shelters, but it costs over $3 million to keep the 24-hour coverage going for a full year for 18 shelters across the state, said Erika Tindill, a former Florida prosecutor who directs the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

She said the legislature's action was significant in this economy, but that the more money spent on sheltering victims from harm the less spent on court cases and hospitalizations.

"The best thing you can do for victims is immediate shelter," said Tindill, "and we've always pitched the funding for the added coverage as a cost savings, in terms of fewer prosecutions, less lost work time for victims, fewer emergency room visits."

Flexer and other legislators wanted 11 new domestic violence dockets in the court system so all 20 geographical area courthouses would have one. But judicial officials said the money simply wasn't there to set up full-fledged teams in every district. So in what Flexer called the biggest compromise of the legislative push, the lawmakers and the judicial branch settled on three new dockets this year, with no timetable for more.

A prominent legislator cautioned that with the promise of new laws comes the responsibility of paying for them.

"The effectiveness of all of this stuff is a little bit more nuanced than people think," said state Rep. Mike Lawlor, co-chairman of the judiciary committee. Lawlor, a former state prosecutor, has often said that solving domestic violence is as much about the availability of jobs, housing, health care and economic independence for women as about toughening up the criminal-justice system.

"Combine all of that with the question of money," said Lawlor, D- East Haven, and "it's one thing to say we're going to hook more guys up to GPS bracelets, it's another thing to see how far the money takes us."

He said that the state's actions are, rightly, sending a message to the front-line cops, prosecutors, judges and everyone else who works in the system "that we're ratcheting things up a few notches, that you're going to be expected to recognize the warning signs and prevent some of these tragedies. But when we do that, we have the moral and legal obligation to back them up" by sustaining the programs and the support, Lawlor said.

'Always Alert'

A year after her ordeal, Tyler is in a much better place.

"Always watchful, always alert but yes, things are much better than they were," she says.

Shenkman is locked up at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield as he awaits trial, with bail set at $2.5 million.

Tyler said she's learned a lot from the advocates that she's met over the last year and realizes there were warning signals in her own life that she should have heeded. She said that speaking in public about what she went through "has empowered me. Women and men who have been the victims need to hear from people who share their experiences, who know what they are going through."

Tyler said she considers herself lucky for the support she has received from family and friends.

They are helping her to reach what she covets the most.


Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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