Recently, in a single week, 13 cases relating to domestic or sexual violence were brought before the three district courts on the Cape.
While no one denies that domestic violence exists in every community, the proposed solutions vary, from counseling for perpetrators to harsher sentencing by the courts. The Enterprise sat down with law enforcement officials, legislators, and attorneys to discuss this weighty issue.
‘Domestic Violence Doesn’t Discriminate’
“Like any other town, Sandwich isn’t immune to serious domestics,” said Sandwich Police Sergeant Lauren Gilrein.
She noted the definition of a “domestic” is pretty broad and includes those among blood relationships such as parents and siblings, as well as incidents that occur between roommates and does not just pertain to romantic relationships.
While the law prohibits the police from releasing information about domestic cases, victims often ask for anonymity.
“I can say as a police department that a lot of times when we’re on the scene, victims will ask, ‘Is this going to be public, will people see this?’” Sgt. Gilrein said. “They are happy when we say it’s not.”
Following an incident, the department does what it can to provide the victim with resources—from information about women’s shelters like Independence House in Hyannis and Carriage House in Falmouth to access to the department’s victim witness department.
Community Service Officer Brian A. Bondarek follows up with domestic violence victims the next day, as well, to see if there is anything he can do to assist them. Sgt. Gilrein said that they give victims all the resources they can and try to empower them to leave, even if they are going to the same home 10 times.
Additionally, the department holds a women’s safety class each year, which teaches women tactics on how to fight back and touches on home safety, internet safety, sexual assaults and rapes.
School Resource Officer Jessica Kent said that the department has a modified version of the course, which is taught to high school seniors. They have one class geared toward young women and another geared toward young men.
“Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate,” she said.
At the high school, they talk about consent and how to build healthy relationships.
Officer Kent said that she is also working on a few different programs with the schools around bullying, cyberbullying and developing healthy relationships with peers.
“I’m hoping to come in and give more presentations on how to be a good friend, what’s right and wrong,” she said. “What I may teach to a child in 1st grade is going to be totally different than what I teach somebody up at the high school.”
A Lack Of Leverage
Michael Patterson is the Cape Cod and the Islands assistant district attorney who has been the Domestic Violence Chief for the past five years.
While looking at the histories of some of the people charged with violent crimes against their family members, it may seem as though the system sees a lot of repeat offenders, Mr. Patterson said that, legally, that is not the case.
In the eyes of the law, they are not considered a repeat offender unless they have been convicted. This often means that they are not facing much in the way of sentencing, assuming that they are convicted at all.
“Unfortunately, despite the best intentions of the Domestic Violence Act, it did not substantially change or improve the government’s ability to prosecute cases,” he said. “The government’s ability to prosecute domestic violence cases depends, in large part, on the cooperation of the victim.”
Mr. Patterson said that they have to make a decision based on all of the available information whether a suspect can be prosecuted.
“It remains the same as it was before the legislation,” he said.
He said that they do prosecute whenever it is possible.
Mr. Patterson added that one thing that did not come from the 2014 legislation was the addition of minimum mandatory sentences.
“It failed to increase the leverage that the government and the commonwealth would have for repeat offenders,” he said.
Treating The Underlying Problems
Michaela McCuish, a defense attorney, said that domestic violence is not something that can be punished away with jail time.
In her experience, most people who are arrested for crimes relating to domestic violence are often dealing with underlying issues such as substance abuse disorders and mental illness.
“People who end up in court usually can’t handle their own lives,” she said.
She said that if the person who has been charged does have a substance abuse problem, then it would be more effective to find rehabilitation services for them instead of sending them to jail.
The court does mandate an intimate partners abuse program as a mandatory part of a convicted abuser’s sentence or as part of their probation, but that program is not appropriate for everyone who has been charged with a domestic violence crime.
“Some of these people are not serial abusers,” she said. “To put them in this program is just not effective.”
The program is a 40-week commitment, which can be a challenge for some people to attend, as well—particularly if they are homeless or jobless with no reliable transportation.
Ms. McCuish also the judge should have more freedom to decide what programs would best assist an offender.
“They should have the discretion to order different types of treatment based on the person,” Ms. McCuish said.
Stemming The Cycle Of Violence
“I think that we’ve got to look at the whole picture because domestic violence perpetrators don’t just happen one day,” said Senator Susan L. Moran (D-Falmouth). “These tend to be folks who grow up in circumstances where violence is prevalent, and they proliferate it.”
Ultimately, the senator believes that handling domestic violence when it comes to perpetrators will require a two-pronged approach.
She said that law enforcement efforts when it comes to domestic violence need to be bolstered, but that community support systems do, too, in order to help stem the cycles of violence.
The safety and well-being of the victim are other parts of what Sen. Moran sees when it comes to domestic violence. In many cases, she sees abused women who are afraid or unable to leave their abuser—whether it is due to financial reasons, because children are involved, or because they have nowhere else to go.
Senator Moran said that these factors tend to lead to the victim’s not testifying against their abuser.
“I think that if we had a program where the guys went to some sort of heavy diversion and she is able to get out of the house, then women would be in a better position where they can decide to testify,” she said.
Police departments should all also have a domestic violence expert on call, she said. This expert would be able to connect a survivor with appropriate resources.
“If we have enough resources that we can have some really good timing right there at that moment, then maybe we can stop the cycle,” she said.
Creating more childcare opportunities would help in situations where children and finances are a factor in someone’s decision to stay with an abuser, she said. In many cases where women are being abused, their partner is the main breadwinner, Sen. Moran said.
As far as the 2014 legislation is concerned, Sen. Moran said that it might be time to revisit it and take a hard look at what has worked and what has not.
She said that if the data shows that some piece of that legislation has prevented someone from getting help—be it the person being abused or the abuser—then she would be interested in filing an amendment to that legislation.
With a 40-year career with the Yarmouth Police Department, state Representative Steven G. Xiarhos (R-Barnstable) has had a lot of experience when it comes to responding to domestic violence calls.
He is critical of the laws that were introduced in 2014, saying that while the legislation protects victims, it also does too much to protect abusers by preventing police departments from being able to name people arrested on domestic violence charges. As a state representative, he would like to see that piece of the legislation revisited, so that the names of people accused of domestic violence can be publicized by police departments.
Additionally, he said that more abusers need to be convicted of these crimes.
“We see repeat offenders, we see violent people,” he said. “The best we can do is make an arrest, do a good investigation and help the survivors and their families.”
While a case can be difficult to try when a victim refuses to testify, Mr. Xiarhos said that it is not always impossible. Evidence such as recorded phone calls, text messages and visual evidence, such as visible bruising, can be entered as evidence in a domestic abuse case.
Empowering survivors is another piece of what he sees police departments doing to try to break the cycle of abuse.
In addition to support for survivors, Mr. Xiarhos is in favor of counseling for people accused of or convicted of domestic violence. As a former board member of Independence House, he said that those services were available to batterers.
“A lot of times it’s good to get someone into the court system; so arresting someone who broke the law doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to go to prison,” he said. “It brings them in front of the court system and the judges and prosecutors, they decide.”
In the event that someone is convicted of domestic violence, Mr. Xiarhos said that he would like to see a registry of batterers, similar to what currently exists for sex offenders. This way, people would have the ability to find out if they were dating someone with a history of violence.
Independence House has a program that aims to prevent domestic violence called Mentors in Violence Prevention, which was started in honor of Mr. Xiarhos’ son, Marine Cpl. Nicholas Xiarhos.
After Cpl. Xiarhos’ death in Afghanistan, Mr. Xiarhos said that he heard from the young women his son had gone to school with that his son was always the big brother figure who would call out bullying when he saw it happening.
Along those lines, Mr. Xiarhos said that calling out “locker room talk” would go a long way in terms of encouraging respect for women.
“Sometimes all it takes is someone to say, ‘Hey look, that’s not right,’ ” he said. “How would you like your daughters to be talked about like that?”
He said that hearing dissent from another man can be a powerful thing to hear and he has always shut that type of talk down when he has heard it, whether it was in the locker room at the police department, out on the golf course, or elsewhere within the community.