| Feb 03, 2014
Better Tools, Better Education - Part 2 of Deadly Affection Series
February 2, 2014
by Diane Jennings
The Dallas Morning News
When Texas police officers answer an emergency domestic violence call these days, they go armed with a gun — and a piece of paper.
The gun is for protection. So is the paper.
The paper contains information about shelters, counseling, hotlines and legal services and often is small enough to fit inside a shoe or a lipstick case — places abusers rarely check. But it’s a big sign of how Texas laws have changed since domestic violence became a public health issue 35 years ago.
Experts say most of the laws needed to address domestic violence are on the books. But funding for enforcement, support programs and prevention is still lacking.
“We used to use the analogy ‘If you hit your neighbor, you go to jail. But if you hit your wife, the cops would not even come,’” said Denise Margo Moy, deputy executive director of Texas Advocacy Project, a nonprofit that provides legal services to victims. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Former prosecutor Aaron Setliff, who serves as director of policy for the Texas Council on Family Violence, agreed. Texas has a “really robust response” to family violence, he said. But “there’s still work to be done.”
For example, a law prohibits gun possession by anyone who has a protective order against him, or who has been convicted of a domestic violence offense. But no one is responsible for making sure the gun is actually surrendered.
In addition, domestic violence cases can move agonizingly slowly. Arrest warrants may not be executed for weeks because servers are few; a case can drag out because detectives and prosecutors are overwhelmed. And if the offender is sentenced to jail in Dallas, overcrowding means he or she may be released after serving a fraction of the time.
“It’s not that we don’t have the legal power,” said Dallas domestic court Judge Rob Cañas. “We don’t have the resources.”
Despite the gaps in the system, experts say Texas has come a long way since Debby Tucker bought a new outfit to lobby the Legislature on behalf of domestic violence victims in 1979.
“At that time, the law enforcement attitude in general was that ‘All of this is a complete waste of time and resources. … We can’t stop this,’” recalled Tucker, now executive director of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence in Austin.
She remembers being appalled that officers typically wouldn’t make an arrest at family violence calls unless they had a warrant or witnessed the incident. The victim could be bleeding, the children screaming and “broken stuff all over the room,” Tucker said. And the officer “would have to go downtown to request a warrant to make an arrest.”
Mark Hafner, president of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, said officers had little training then. If “no one showed signs of injury, our role was ‘Hey, everyone’s safe,’ separate the combatants and move on. ‘It’s your problem.’”
Even when officers worried that victims were in danger, they usually had no place to send them because shelters were still a fledgling concept.
Today, most of the time a 911 call is answered by officers trained to deal with domestic violence. Warrantless arrests are permitted, and many departments take suspects to jail and refer the victims to services.
Penalties for domestic violence crimes have been raised, and shelters and batterer intervention programs are now accessible. Those shelters and intervention programs, however, may be harder to find in rural areas than in big cities, Setliff said.
Also, dating violence awareness education is required in Texas schools, and protective orders are available.
“The law has given us better tools, better education,” Hafner said. “So we don’t feel as frustrated. We feel we are making a difference.”
In the 19th century, a husband could legally “chastise” his wife with physical punishment. And until the 1970s, husbands nationwide could not be charged with raping their wives. Texas did not pass a spousal rape law until 1987, but it wasn’t until 1994 that all exemptions for marital rape were eliminated. Now a victim of marital rape can make allegations in the same manner as other sexual assault victims.
Few advocate going back to those pre-1987 days, but some worry that the new laws could force the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction.
“Some of the changes have been valuable in fighting domestic violence,” said Sam Bassett, a vice president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. But “when you start eliminating or chipping away” at certain fundamental rights, “you have to be very careful.”
Bassett said more aggressive laws make false abuse claims a bigger problem than in the past.
“I see instances of false allegations to gain leverage in a child custody battle or in a divorce lawsuit,” he said.
Some of the biggest changes in the law involve how domestic violence suspects are held and prosecuted.
In 2005, Texas voters approved an amendment to the state constitution allowing judges to hold some people accused of a felony in jail without bail if the safety of a victim is at stake.
“That’s big,” said Cañas, of Dallas County Criminal Court No. 10, who said the law makes dealing with repeat offenders easier. “Because under the Texas Constitution, everybody’s entitled to bond — the worst mass murderer you can think of is entitled to a bond.”
More recently, the Texas Legislature passed a “forfeiture by wrongdoing” law that allows a domestic violence trial to proceed even if the victim is not present. That’s contrary to the constitutional right to confront your accuser, but the U.S. Supreme Court has said the defendant forfeits that right if it can be proved that he has intimidated the victim into not appearing.
The Texas law, which is similar to that of other states, requires a hearing before the trial starts to determine whether the claim is valid — that is, whether “the defendant has caused her not to be present by threatening her, telling her he was going to kill her or hurt her more,” Setliff said.
The prosecutor must convince the judge by the “preponderance of the evidence” standard used in civil disputes rather than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal court.
The new laws have helped make a difference — studies show that domestic violence has declined since the mid-1990s.
But people are still hurting their loved ones emotionally and physically. In 2012, the Texas Department of Public Safety reported almost 200,000 family violence incidents. That same year, 269 people were killed in Texas by someone with whom they had a close relationship. There were 1,144 total homicides statewide that year.
Experts say answers to the problem are more complex than advocates realized in the early days of the movement to end domestic violence, when arresting abusers and providing temporary shelter to victims seemed to be the answer.
Paige Flink, executive director of The Family Place, Dallas’ first shelter, said transitional housing and services are needed now.
“You can’t just pay someone’s rent and put them out in the community,” she said.
Other advocates push funding for civil representation in divorce court, as well as increased domestic violence education for kids.
But even ardent advocates acknowledge that more laws and money won’t end domestic violence.
“There has to be some kind of a significant change in public attitude,” like the intolerance for drunken driving, said Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Denver.
Smith said she would like to see religious groups and employers, among others, make family violence unacceptable in society.
“If there were those kinds of consequences, in addition to legal ones … that pressured people into not using violence as a way to control their family, then I think we would have more success.”
Read more in Dallasnews.com.