Judicial shortcomings for domestic violence victims

The number of domestic violence-related deaths in Pima County increased by 50 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.

Ed Mercurio-Sakwa, the CEO of the local Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse, says that his organization’s hotline typically receives calls from about 5,500 individuals in Tucson each year.

Last year 5,900 called Emerge’s hotline, and Mercurio-Sakwa predicts that “this year we’re on pace for about 7,300 different calls,” an increase of more than 30 percent of the typical hotline traffic. “And the scary part of that is that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Mercurio-Sakwa says.

“A lot of research shows that only about one in 10 incidents get reported,” Mercurio-Sakwa says, “The Tucson Police Department and Pima County Sheriff’s Department alone get almost 13,000 calls each year to 911 for domestic violence and again it’s probably about one-tenth of what’s really going on.”

Emerge! works with the Pima County Attorney’s office to provide victims with support and emergency resources through the Domestic Violence Court, established in 2007, but Mercurio-Sakwa admits that the Pima County legal system cannot provide justice for all victims.

One issue for victims, about 85 percent of whom are women, “is that the vast majority of domestic violence is emotional abuse, verbal abuse and economic abuse, which are not illegal, generally speaking,” Mercurio-Sakwa says.

The Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project (DV LEAP), an organization out of Washington, D.C., that works to advance legal protections for victims and provide assistance during appeals processes nationwide, recognizes the shortcomings of protections against nonphysical forms of abuse.

“Even though there has been extensive training efforts to educate judges on the broader spectrum of behavior that encompasses domestic violence, judges rarely recognize or grant protection for controlling behavior that is the core of domestic violence,” says Sasha Drobnick, the legal director of DV LEAP.
These behaviors can include threats, intimidation, degradation, social isolation and financial manipulation, all with the goal of total control over the victim.

However, just because an abuser has not resorted to physical violence yet does not mean it won’t happen in the future.

“Somebody who is looking to control someone else will use whatever tactic necessary to gain that control,” Mercurio-Sakwa says, “That means that they will keep raising the level of abuse until they don’t have to anymore. So, abusers who feel like they can differentiate themselves from men who hit their wives are wrong. The truth is you’re not physical because you haven’t had to be, not because you wouldn’t be willing to.”

One of the overarching goals for DV LEAP is to develop “broader and more accurate definitions of domestic violence with domestic violence statutes that capture and provide protection against coercive control,” Drobnick says.

Even victims who suffer prosecutable forms of abuse face judicial shortcomings, an example of which is order of protection enforcement.

One option for victims of illegal abuse is an order of protection, which bars the perpetrator from any contact with the victim in person or any other way for one year.

Violations of orders of protection in Arizona are supposed to result in immediate arrest, possible jail time and fines.

Despite the order’s name, Mercurio-Sakwa says “it may just serve to piss (the abuser) off more, and at the end of the day it’s a piece of paper.”

One victim, who was granted her fourth order of protection against her husband and father of her children on March 4 in the Pima County Superior Court, asked presiding Judge Geoffrey Ferlan what she could do to keep her abuser from continuously violating the order of protection.

“Is there anything else I can do if I’ve already told the police and he’s still violating it?” she asked, sitting alone in front of the judge.

The victim said she reported all of the violations to the Tucson Police Department, but no actions were taken.

Ferlan could only respond with, “Legally, I can’t give you advice.”

The abuser, who previously served prison time for domestic violence, did not show up to a hearing that he requested to dispute the order of protection.
Court records describe incidents of stalking, choking, pushing and threatening the victim and their two children under the age of 10.

In one report, the victim wrote, “(the abuser) sent me a picture of a gun to his head saying he was going to kill myself, the kids, then himself.”

At the end of the brief hearing, after Ferlan recommended that the victim “continue to report the violations to the police and use resources like Emerge! to keep yourself safe,” she was escorted to her car by two court officers.

Unlike the legal system, which uniformly issues orders of protection and prosecutes domestic abusers, Emerge! focuses on individualized safety response plans.

“We feel like every situation is totally unique, and requires a customized response plan that may or may not involve the court,” Mercurio-Sakwa says.

Mercurio-Sakwa’s experience with victims taught him that not all victims want to prosecute or leave their abusers, whether for financial or familial reasons, and those that do want legal justice can face threats and intimidation in the process.

“Sometimes there is tremendous fear. The abuser will say, ‘I’m going to get out, they might arrest me but I’ll be out in a day or so,’” he says. “That’s real. That is a real safety risk for victims.”

Although victims can contact law enforcement if they feel threatened, a survey conducted by The National Domestic Violence Hotline in 2015 found that only one in five women nationwide who contacted the police about their abuse felt safer.

Intimidation outside of court can cause victims to recant or drop charges for their own safety.

One appeals case that DV LEAP is working on involves a domestic violence survivor who was denied a protective order because she previously dropped criminal charges against her abuser because of fear.

Recanting a statement or dropping charges can make a victim look unreliable, and make pressing subsequent charges or seeking protection more difficult.

“These behaviors are common among survivors and have many possible explanations, but the court chose to find that the abuse didn’t occur,” Drobnick says.

Although police departments nationwide are trained to protect victims from their abusers, in 2015 two-thirds of women suffering from domestic violence “were afraid the police would not believe them or do nothing,” according to The National Domestic Violence Hotline.

The Tucson Police Department did not respond to repeated requests for an interview about its experience with domestic violence incidents.

Although there were about 4,000 domestic violence-related deaths nationwide in 2015, the rate of domestic violence deaths in Pima County was 44 percent higher than the national rate.

Mercurio-Sakwa, a man working in a position traditionally occupied by women, feels that the next step in domestic violence prevention is “shifting the community conversation to the unhealthy aspects of masculinity.”

“We have for so long seen this as a women’s issue. It was left on their shoulders to somehow take care of it,” he says. “I find it really important that men hold each other accountable.”

Mercurio-Sakwa’s goals for the organization, while under his guidance, are to expand on prevention programs directed at men.

Although Emerge! is a positive place for victims to seek out the help they need, Mercurio-Sakwa was reluctant to admit, “unfortunately, we will never go out of business.”

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