Domestic violence meeting praised Prosecutor, others say they learned how to better help victims

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

Lessons learned at last month's National Conference on Domestic Violence in Dallas may prove valuable to victims of spousal abuse in Carroll County, a local prosecutor says.

The four-day conference afforded opportunities to discover how other jurisdictions prosecute domestic violence and deal with victims, said Melissa O. Hockensmith, an assistant state's attorney who heads Carroll's domestic violence unit.

Hockensmith, who attended the conference with investigator Gary W. Cofflin and domestic violence case coordinator Latisha Mayne, said that spousal abuse among the elderly, for example, must be treated differently than abuse among younger people.

"If an elderly man beats his wheelchair-bound wife, and he is locked up, it could take away the only person available to provide care for her," Hockensmith said.

Additional services for senior citizens who are victims of abuse would become a greater priority in that scenario, she said.

Abuse of the elderly is not common in Carroll County, she said.

"We may see one or two cases involving the elderly a month, but we came away from the conference realizing that we must be more aware of victims' needs," Hockensmith said. "It would do no good to help them get into a two-story shelter, if they can't go up and down stairs."

Cofflin, a retired state police detective, said, "Knowledge is power, and we feel like we now have the power since attending the conference."

A veteran of 23 years in law enforcement, Cofflin said he wished he had known years ago what he learned in Dallas.

He learned the medical difference between choking and strangulation, and the implication that could have for a prosecutor.

Cofflin said he was amazed to hear from forensic experts that a victim of abuse may say she was choked, but a police officer can help prosecutors prove she was strangled.

Just getting photographs of injuries -- "what I used to simply call bruises in my reports" -- can help a forensic expert testify in court that a victim wasn't just "slapped around, but nearly strangled to death," he said.

Mayne said she came home from Dallas feeling "re-energized."

A high rate of burnout develops in those who work daily with victims of domestic violence, she said. The conference was invaluable for gaining new perspectives, she said.

In Illinois, Cook County has an advanced domestic violence unit, which includes a civil attorney and crisis counselor to assist prosecutors.

"The cooperation we have with other agencies, such as Family and Children's Services, is really good, but it could be even better to have one of their counselors working in the same office with us," Mayne said.

Cofflin hopes to share his new knowledge with local police officers, who generally respond first to domestic violence incidents.

More than 1,500 prosecutors, judges, lawyers and law enforcement officers participated in the conference, and Hockensmith and Mayne said they were thankful to have made contacts in other states and at the federal level.

"We may want to get someone into a Pennsylvania shelter for reasons of victim safety, for example, and having a network of people who also attended the conference is invaluable," she said.

Networking is a two-way street, Cofflin said.

"Some at the conference were interested in Carroll County, the way we do things," he said. "A lot of people were interested in our having the VINE program. They wanted to know how it was working here."

VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) enables registered participants, victims of violent crime, to be notified quickly by telephone if an assailant escapes or is released from jail.

Others asked about obtaining security alarm systems for victims, Cofflin said.

"I had a lot of questions about the criteria used to select candidates for installing security systems," he said.

The national conference is unique because it's prosecution-oriented, said Hockensmith, who applied last year for the state Department of Juvenile Justice grant that paid nearly all expenses for the trio to attend the conference.

Carroll's domestic violence unit was formed in July 1997 by State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes to concentrate on the rapidly rising number of domestic violence cases. According to data provided by the Circuit Court, 67 domestic violence cases were filed in 1993. That had risen to 425 last year. Through September, about 300 cases have been filed this year.

The unit went into action a month after three people were killed in two domestic violence incidents in Hampstead.

Pub Date: 11/02/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.