DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: Reported cases double over last five years

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By Becky Barnes

Judge David Melcher is waiting for a family court docket without a domestic violence case.

Hes not holding his breath.

In fact, during the last five years, domestic violence cases have been on the rise.

During all of 2003, there were 40 new domestic violence cases filed in Harrison County.

Melcher said that number more than doubled by 2007 with 83 new cases being filed.

Its not just a Harrison County problem either, Melcher said. In neighboring Pendleton County, there were 33 cases in 2003, compared to 75 last year.

Many [cases] are alcohol and drug involved, Melcher said. I think the increase in substance abuse is reflected in the numbers going up.

Couple the new cases with those up for review, and you have a full court docket.

Melcher said he knows that when he gets a 3 a.m. knock on his door or phone call, its likely to be a domestic situation where his signature is needed on an emergency protective order. An EPO is a 14-day restraining order. However, until the alleged perpetrator is notified by law enforcement that the EPO exists, it is incomplete.

We advise the victim to steer clear of the other party, Melcher said of the incidents where the alleged pursuer in a DV has left the scene and cannot be found.

A victim can also sign a domestic petition in front of law enforcement which allows for setting a court date once the petition is signed by the judge.

He noted that the problem with an EPO is that the judge gets information from only one side of a situation. Based on that one persons rendition, the judge can separate parties, grant custody of children and even confiscate weapons all before a hearing is held.

Melcher called it a cooling off period.

If the petition is not specific or if the judge has doubts, he may still issue a summons for the parties to come to court.

In some cases, not only does the perpetrator not show up, but the victim doesnt show either.

He said for a case to be considered domestic violence, there has to be a threat of physical injury.

Screaming and arguing arent domestic violence, Melcher qualified.

He has what he considers red flag characteristics to watch for, such as the use of weapons or physical contact that resulted in fairly significant damage (bruising, broken bones or cuts).

He said he has kind of a mental checklist he tries to get answered.

Has the victim been restrained in some manner, such as keys being taken away, doors locked, phones ripped out?

Is there known physical injury? What do police know about the situation?

What were the threats? Have there been prior incidents?

Were illegal substances involved?

Melcher said many of the perpetrators in violent attacks within the home, are also in court on other charges like DUI, drug possession and even assault.

The victim may not be able to express themselves [in the immediate aftermath of an episode]. Then when they get to court, you find theres a huge history, Melcher said. I want to err on the side of caution with an EPO.

He said the EPO was designed for protection. You dont want anyone hurt on either side, or the children. You want people to cool off.

A domestic violence order (DVO) can be issued in court and can be in effect for three years, with the possibility of renewal.

Melcher said a domestic violence order can often be handled in one court appearance. The parties involved may be directed to counseling. The perpetrator may be required to complete counseling for anger management, domestic violence treatment or even substance abuse. Reviews of those cases may be handled outside of the courtroom by judicial staff.

He noted that there is often a problem with fulfilling counseling needs even though there are good resources for treatment available in Harrison County.

Its a problem with the parties complying with the orders, he said.

He said in the extreme cases, those parties would be held in contempt. However, Melcher said he prefers they do the counseling because jails dont address the problem.

Also, once a DVO or EPO has been entered in the court system and served to the perpetrator, any violation can be cause for criminal charges and the subject can be arrested without a warrant, Melcher said.

Melcher said one of the biggest changes hes seen in his 15 years on the bench is the make-up of parties involved in domestic cases.

Its used more and more by parties that arent just husband and wife, Melcher said, citing live-in couples and children. He also noted that more men are also being found to be victims.

Generally, when its a male/female issue, it has traditionally been about control, Melcher said. The most common of that being jealousy issues.

He said not always, but occasionally, an argument is triggered by the woman who found out about a husbands infidelity. As the argument escalates, the husband lashes out physically.

Another reason couples say their situation graduated to violence is because of a loss of job or illness and stresses are high.

Melcher said he is concerned that the economic downturn will not help the rising numbers in domestic episodes.

He said there are cases where the couples come in and claim that this one incident was the only time it has occurred and it may never happen again. However, there are the cases where they keep coming back for the same thing.

Melcher said it is for those individuals that the EPO/DVO laws are aimed.

Its up to the judges and law enforcement to determine if someone is in immediate and present danger. Thats where, Melcher said, its better err on the side of caution.