Women victims find a friend in panel on strife Judges, medics, police team up in bid to ease trauma of using system

Concern about violence

Efforts coincide with volunteer program in prosecutor's office

October 30, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

A panel examining how cases of violence against women are handled in Howard County -- by police, courts, medical personnel, counselors and others involved in the process -- is seeking to coordinate efforts to make the process less traumatic for the victims.

The Family & Sexual Violence Coordinating Council -- made up of Howard County judges, victim advocates, health professionals and law enforcement personnel -- has identified some areas it wants to target and problems it wants to resolve.

The council's efforts co- incide with the creation of a volunteer program in the Howard County state's attorney's office to aid victims of domestic violence. That program aims to boost the conviction rate of batterers by providing victims with volunteers to give support soon after they file a criminal charge and until they are called to testify in any court action.

The value of the council is that representatives of agencies who work with abused women or children have direct access to the people who make policy decisions in the county, says Judith E. Clancy, executive director of the county's Domestic Violence Center.

Circuit Court Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who said the idea grew out of the state's Family Violence Council led by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., said the panel is allowing people for the first time to focus directly on the problems of domestic and sexual violence.

"I think it has been catch as catch can," Sweeney, co-chair of the council, said of previous efforts geared toward easing the trauma of women victims of violence. "Some of it has worked well and some of it hasn't."

Members of the council, which first met in April, are working on a number of ideas that range from broad policy proposals to simple paperwork changes.

Among their preliminary proposals:

* A screening program at hospitals that would involve medical professionals working to identify victims of family violence and refer them to domestic violence and sexual assault centers.

* A detailed form filled out by the victim that would give police more information about how to track down abusers when a court issues a restraining order.

* Training for all law enforcement, medical and school personnel in domestic violence issues.

* Close a paperwork loophole to ensure batterers referred to the Domestic Violence Center by the courts for treatment actually appear.

* Involve clergy in addressing the issue.

* Develop a program to determine the risk a domestic violence victim faces.

Sweeney said he hopes to see the creation of a permanent group that will serve as an intermediary between the judges and victims of violence. Clancy said there have been complaints in the past that some judges were not sympathetic to the women.

"We want to hear that stuff," Sweeney said. "If people don't feel we are taking their cases seriously we want to hear that."

The council's creation comes on the heels of rising concerns about domestic violence in Howard County. In 1996, the number of incidents police recorded rose about 20 percent to more than 900, though the 512 incidents in the first nine months of this year mark a decrease in complaints, police said.

The courts have seen an increased number of women seeking protection from their abusers -- with domestic violence filings rising 20 percent over the past fiscal year, according to District Court headquarters in Annapolis.

In the new program in the county state's attorney's office, a volunteer will oversee a program to help victims. The primary goal is to provide early support for victims after they file a criminal charge, said State's Attorney Marna McLendon. "Our office wants to do everything possible to support a victim in these circumstances," McLendon said.

The Circuit Court also has a new case coordinator who helps victims of domestic violence when they seek protection.

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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