Advocates say courts trivialize abuse cases Judges don't take problem seriously, they contend

November 24, 1997|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Debbie Aiello says the Maryland court system failed to give her justice in what should have been a simple case of domestic battery.

The core of the complaint: Although a Baltimore County District Court judge found her attacker in violation of probation for failing to attend domestic violence counseling sessions, the judge let him go without punishment.

"The judge made it seem like a trivial matter," Aiello said recently. "I can't believe he would tell a perpetrator you need counseling and then excuse that person. There's something very wrong here."

The judge and the assailant defended the way the case was handled -- including an order by the judge that the man stay away from Aiello.

But advocates for battered women say the case is an example of how judges often fail to take domestic violence seriously.

"The issue of judges excusing or failing to order men to abusers' treatment is a pervasive problem throughout Maryland," said Carole Alexander, executive director of the House of Ruth.

Aiello's experience, she said, shows a "failure on the part of judiciary to understand the seriousness of domestic violence as a crime."

"Abusers' treatment is not a recreational experience. It is something men are ordered to do because they have committed a crime," Alexander said.

Advocates acknowledge that the issue has not been extensively researched. But the few studies that have examined it indicate that only a small percentage of men ordered to attend counseling complete the treatment -- and those who refuse frequently go unpunished.

A 1990 study by the Urban Institute, for example, looked at 348 domestic violence cases handled by Baltimore County District Court.

Researcher Adele Harrell wrote that after judges ordered defendants to attend domestic violence counseling, "no offenders were penalized for failure to complete the court-ordered treatment."

A 1994 study in Baltimore City of 62 men ordered to attend counseling at the House of Ruth found that only 10 completed the sessions, said Christopher Murphy, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who conducted the study.

He did not determine whether judges meted out punishment for those who failed to attend.

Educating judges on the seriousness of domestic violence is one of the priorities of the attorney general's and lieutenant governor's Family Violence Council. The panel has provided judges with domestic violence handbooks that explain the importance of the counseling sessions, said Francine Krumholz, the council's director.

In Aiello's case, Judge Darryl G. Fletcher found the assailant, Lawrence Anzer, in violation of probation for refusing to go to the sessions as ordered the previous August.

But the judge surprised Aiello by excusing Anzer from the counseling and dismissing him without punishment.

Anzer, who was a longtime friend of Aiello's, had admitted pushing her during an argument in her Woodlawn apartment in June 1996. Anzer later said he admitted guilt in court because he thought he would attend just six counseling session -- not 26, as the program requires.

During the hearing in April, the judge also expressed surprise at the number of required sessions.

"I find Mr. Anzer in violation of probation. I was not aware it was a 26-week program as well I'll excuse the defendant from the domestic violence counseling obligation in this case," said Fletcher, according to a court tape-recording of the hearing.

In the six months since the last court hearing, Aiello, a 44-year-old youth counselor, has complained to the judge about the decision, as well as to the court's administrative judge in Baltimore County, John H. Garmer, and to the Maryland Judicial Disabilities Commission.

She also has complained to a state senator, to lawyers at the House of Ruth and to the director of the Family Violence Council.

Fletcher, through a secretary, declined to comment on the case. But he did write to Aiello, noting that although he excused Anzer from counseling, "I did include a specific directive to him that he have no contact with you."

Garmer also answered Aiello's letter, writing, "I have no authority to review or alter the decisions of other District Court judges."

A complaint to the Judicial Disabilities Commission has yet to be answered, Aiello said.

For his part, Anzer said the number of sessions he would have had to attend was unreasonable.

"I didn't do anything that was that bad," he said in a recent interview. "I didn't push her over. She fell back, if she fell 2 foot."

Aiello recalls the incident differently.

"He pushed me and I fell back. I cut my elbow and had a sprained neck," she said, adding that she later saw a trauma counselor because "I had panic attacks and nightmares."

Aiello said the incident was not one that merited jail time for Anzer, but added, "I was delighted he was going to get counseling."

She said of the way things turned out:

"It makes me feel very helpless. I've exhausted every effort, and I still can't believe something like this happens not only to me but to other people."

Pub Date: 11/24/97

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