Domestic violence project funded Prosecutor unit seeks to combat problem

July 02, 1998|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

A renewed federal grant of more than $50,000 will keep the state's attorney's domestic violence unit operating in Carroll County for another fiscal year.

The money -- $51,805 -- provided through the S*T*O*P Violence Against Women Grant Program is paid to Carroll County government, which in turn provides the salary and benefits for Melissa O. Hockensmith, the county's domestic violence prosecutor, and some office equipment.

The grant, which was announced by Michael A. Sarbanes, executive director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control & Prevention, became effective yesterday.

State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes said the renewal means no local dollars will be needed to continue Carroll's fight against domestic violence.

Barnes completed formation of the domestic violence unit last year, using the grant money to team Hockensmith with Latisha Mayne and Gary W. Cofflin.

Mayne is the unit's case coordinator, Cofflin is the investigator, and Hockensmith specializes in prosecuting domestic violence offenders. They work with state and local police and Child Abuse Sexual Assault program and Family and Children's Services to curb domestic violence.

The unit seeks to streamline prosecution of a rapidly increasing number of domestic violence cases. In 1993, prosecutors handled 67 domestic violence cases in Circuit Court. Last year, they handled 308 such cases.

Because the unit encourages victims to press charges and stop the cycle of violence, the increase may continue. But the unit has had only 206 new cases, since Jan. 1 -- 34 less than occurred in the first six months of last year.

Hockensmith found the slight decrease encouraging. "We hope that [decline] is the result of our efforts and that of the domestic violence task force getting the word out that you can't beat up your wife and get away with it," she said.

About 96 percent of all domestic violence incidents involve men abusing women, "but we still prosecute women, if they are the aggressors," Hockensmith said.

Guilty verdicts -- 119 in 243 cases -- were up 10.4 percent during the unit's first seven months of operation compared to similar prosecutions in the same period the previous year, she said.

Acquittals -- 61 -- were up 4 percent over the same period, but that figure is affected by a change in policy, Hockensmith said.

Previously, if an abused wife said she would not testify against her husband, "our office would drop the case," she said.

"Now, we are requiring a wife to go on the stand and invoke her one-time privilege not to testify, even when we know we don't have enough evidence to go forward without her testimony. [The husband] gets a judgment of acquittal, but at least if he ever abuses her again, she cannot refuse to testify."

Mayne, who is a formerly abused spouse, accompanies many of the victims to court, providing emotional support.

Cofflin, a retired state trooper, often walks abused spouses through the charging process and makes frequent checks on TC their safety in cases where the court issues a protective order.

Hockensmith hopes the grant will be renewed next year -- and that the county will assume the cost after that. The program was to run three years, but funding is not guaranteed.

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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