Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, March 20, 2000

McLeod Alliance adds intervention project to its services

By Luis Puga

"Until domestic violence is truly condemned by the community, batterers will continue their abuse and victims will remain trapped in a potentially lethal cycle of violence."

This quote hangs in the office of the McLeod Alliance for Victims of Domestic Violence.

Alliance Coordinator Connie Schmoll agrees that the quote, taken from one of the Alliance's brochures, is a fitting one to describe its intentions with its new Criminal Justice Intervention program.

The program, funded by grants from the Department of Public Safety, is designed to avail the services of the alliance to victims, law enforcement, prosecutors, and others within the legal system. The point is to track a case, whether requested or not, and offer assistance where needed.

Schmoll said the alliance has wanted to get funding for such a program for years - in part, to watch cases that go through the courts and see what responses develop in sentencing, and to ensure maximum safety for the victims and children.

Schmoll added that certainly part of the project is to hold perpetrators accountable, but overall, she said the emphasis is to partner with the legal system.

Work on the grant began last spring, which Schmoll indicated was a highly competitive process.

While Schmoll insists that the "tracking" aspect of the program is not an attempt to criticize other agencies, the grant did require that the alliance show a need for the project. As such, the grant application lists a number of "problems" under the headings of law enforcement, prosecution, and training.

Under law enforcement, the application indicates that the arrest rate was low: 276 domestic calls, and 76 arrests. The application also cites incomplete investigations, including not interviewing witnesses, no pictures, no taped statements, not interviewing children, and no assessment of past battering or alcohol/chemical use.

Other problems include incomplete or no reports when no arrest took place, and quick release of the batterer, without a bail hearing.

Lastly, failure to report child endangerment or referral for medical attention, and seven different departments with seven different policies for responding seven different ways to an incident were indicated.

Prosecution problems listed in the grants include plea bargaining down to disorderly conduct, which Schmoll indicates may be done because convicted batterers are not allowed to own a gun.

The application also cites not up-dating policies or not using current policies, little contact with law enforcement or advocacy programs, four different prosecutors from four different agencies with little coordination, and slow court processes with many continuances.

Also, the application stated that no warrants requested after a batterer fails to appear in court, increase in stays of adjudication and continuance for dismissal, few cases that go to trial, and reluctance to prosecute without a victim are indicated.

Under training, the application indicates that the last countywide law enforcement and prosecution training was in 1995 and less than half of targeted officers attended.

Only one law enforcement department had training in the three years previous to the time of the grant application. The grant also stated that no officers or prosecutors have attended training recommended by the alliance, and there have been no opportunities in the immediate area for state sponsored training.

So is this an indictment of McLeod County's handling of domestic abuse cases?

Schmoll said not necessarily. She stated that the grant application indicates "room for improvement." Overall, she emphasized a need for working together with agencies to address cases of abuse.

With the money that the grant provides, the alliance has added an intervention coordinator, Holly Kleve, to implement the project.

Kleve's role is threefold: to work with victims or survivors when possible, to act as an advocate of the survivor, even if not requested to do so, and to follow all cases through the system.

Kleve said she wants to work with other agencies to improve response to cases, from law enforcement to sentencing.

Both women state that the objective is not to tell agencies how to do their jobs. Rather, it is to ensure that agencies are aware of the alliance's services and ensure that victim's rights are not overlooked.

Kleve, who has had previous experience with a battered women organization and carries the perfect major, according to Schmoll, in applied sociology and criminal justice, said it is important for the alliance to establish relationships with other agencies.

In part, this need for more communication is facilitated through a task force of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges that meets once a month. The task force meets to gather input from all organizations, including seven city police departments and the sheriff's department.

Other aspects of communication include offering training to officers from ensuring safety for the officer to identifying victims and offenders to knowing resources available to survivors.

Kleve said she can act on behalf of a survivor, who may not want to cooperate with the court system or simply not want to go through the experience of being in court.

In part, Kleve said, that role may lead her to be called to testify, but would rather not, since it might compromise a survivor's trust with her.

Kleve summarizes her position as encountering problems, and then dealing with them.

In part, Kleve will also be looking for patterns within the system. As of yet, she does not have enough data compiled to identify any patterns.

One challenge seems to be finding out about cases. Particularly, she sees that the alliance needs to receive more reports from agencies about calls and incidents. She hopes she will be able to network with agencies to do so.

Overall, both women indicate that agencies have been receptive to the new project and want to work with the alliance to ensure victim safety. Also, both indicate that the law enforcement and prosecutors have a difficult job with handling domestic abuse cases.

Certainly, the pattern of survivors not wishing to see a batterer, who may be a close family member, prosecuted is well known.

Schmoll said it is simply important to know, "What happened here?" By this, she means what happened in each individual case as it went through the system.

Kleve indicated that it will also be important to notify agencies when they have done well with a case and hear that response from the alliance. This is, again, part of the alliance's concern not to indict other agencies.

However, both women admit they would like to see the result of the program be a stronger accountability in sentencing, including rehabilitation, as an outcome.

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