According to statistics from the Texas Council on Family Violence, about 47 percent of Texans fall victim to domestic violence, with the majority of victims being female. In Southeast Texas, that number reached nearly 4,000 occurrences in 2009. With the amount of reported domestic violence incidents rising, those that deal with the issue on a regular basis – law enforcement, case workers, victims’ advocates, prosecutors and judges – are all stepping up to make the legal process more centered on the victim, rather than focused on prosecuting the batterer.
The Jefferson County Domestic Violence Task Force is still in a fledgling stage, but authorities feel it will make a difference in the lives of those who have been abused, as well as their abusers.
Along with the thousands of reports filed last year in Jefferson County, there were also instances that resulted in the deaths of two women. The first Jefferson County family violence death that took place last year was in April, when 17-year-old Danielle Rodriguez was allegedly shot and killed by her boyfriend Charles Harris, 24. The second tragedy took place six months later in October. Jennifer Alston, 32, who was eight months pregnant at the time, was shot by her husband Martin Alston, 34, who then turned the gun on himself. Alston’s 8-year-old daughter found their bodies.
The goal of the task force is to provide victims with all the options and resources available to them, from the legal aspect of the situation to helping them get out of a dangerous situation or resolve the issues with their batterer.
“For several years we had a no-drop policy,” said Tom Rugg, Jefferson County District Attorney’s first assistant. “Victims would come in and seek to drop the charges. We would just tell them no, and that was the end of it. A lot of times the person wouldn’t show up to court during prosecution and we wouldn’t have a case good enough to prosecute – we’d have to dismiss it.”
Rugg said in instances like those, there was no real resolution to the domestic violence, which in turn could trigger another episode later on.
“There’s a brief disruption – the perpetrator is arrested, and booked, and bailed out, but when the victim wouldn’t show up to testify, there’s nothing resolved,” he said. “With no resolution, it can lead to repeat violence, and very soon it almost becomes a learned behavior – police can haul a person away for the evening, but then something else happens a few months later.”
For that reason, a number of organizations dedicated to saving victims of domestic violence and their families have decided to work together.
Bonnie Loiodice, family violence director for Family Services of Southeast Texas, said the venture started several months ago, but is still gaining momentum.
“All of (the organizations) came together and talked about domestic violence from the victim’s point of view,” she said. “We talked about how to make things better, what we should strive for.”
One of the results that came from the discussions was the creation of an options class. The purpose of the class is to provide all the information necessary to help make the best decision with regards to prosecution and victims’ assistance, according to Loiodice.
When victims attempt to meet with the prosecutor to drop the charges, one of the requirements before the meeting is to take part in the options class. Some of the information doled out during the hour-long class includes treatment available to teach batterers how to coexist in a relationship, probationary restrictions that would be imposed should the batterer receive probation, information from the local women and children’s shelter, victims’ assistance info, as well as information relating to prosecution.As far as treatment goes for the perpetrator, Family Services currently has a Batterers Intervention Program that helps teach offenders how healthy relationships should function, and alternatives to abuse.
During the options class, victims get information from the district attorney in terms of what’s going to happen with their case.
“Say you’re a victim and you’re thinking about dropping the case,” said Dr. Alvin Williams, Family Services community education coordinator. “The district attorney is telling you at that point, even though you may want to drop the charges, it’s really the state’s case at that point – they determine whether they’re going to move forward with that case.”
Williams said oftentimes, victims who have filed charges are persuaded to drop them by the batterer.
“Once you come out of class, all you have to say is, ‘I wanted to drop them but that district attorney is going to move forward with the case.’ It gives them a way to say it’s out of their hands,” said Williams.
Beaumont Detective Gregory Pratt said he feels intimidation is a factor in victims seeking to drop charges.
“One of the things we want to let victims know is that we find a lot of them get intimidated to drop these charges,” Pratt said. “We want them to know you don’t have to take it; there are people and organizations out here to help you.”
Janet Walker, executive director of Family Services, said she feels it’s the community’s job to stand up to domestic violence and to hold batterers accountable.
“Local law enforcement, courts, prosecutors and social service agencies, such as Family Services of Southeast Texas are working together to do just that,” she said.
As far as the hopes of the new endeavor, everyone The Examiner spoke with said they have high hopes for the task force and feel it will make a major difference in the lives of victims and offenders.