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Domestic violence difficult to track

Approximately 1,500 domestic violence calls are reported and about 900 ex parte orders are filed each year in the five counties served by New Way Shelter, Director Lisa Bird said.

The actual number of domestic violence occurrences in St. Francois, Ste. Genevieve, Washington, Iron and Madison counties is unclear for several reasons.

Calls to 911 centers are recorded as received. That means assaults or disturbances might later be charged under the domestic violence law, but the center’s call records do not reflect the change.

Victims sometimes refuse to talk to police for the incident report or they fail to appear in court when the prosecutor presses charges. Without victim testimony, charges often are not filed or the case is thrown out.

Some area courts don’t keep separate records of the number of people charged with domestic violence or the number of those cases that are prosecuted.

The Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence Web site (www.mocadv.org) includes records for 2004 in the southeast region of Missouri, which includes the five counties served by New Way Shelter. According to the Coalition, 744 women and children stayed at shelters last year. Another 687 victims received nonresidential services, including 16 men. During the year when shelters in the region were full, they turned away 103 women and 50 children.

However, shelter figures reflect only a part of the problem. Women of means, and women who have supportive friends and relatives rarely go to shelters.

Available statistics in St. Francois and Washington counties also show a partial account of the problem.

St. Francois County’s 911 center dispatched police to 855 calls classified as domestic disturbances in 2004, said Alan Wells, director of 911 communication. As of Dec. 19, the center had received 866 domestic disturbances this year. Those statistics do not include calls handled by Farmington.

The figures for the county are probably conservative, Wells said.

“Some calls may come in to us as a loud party or a disturbance and we won’t know that it’s classified as domestic on the police reports,” he explained.

Stephanie Williams, victim advocate for St. Francois County, estimates that the prosecutor’s office probably gets five or six reports of domestic violence per week. Many cases are not filed, because the victim will not cooperate.

“We get a lot of reports, but some are not as serious as others, and sometimes the actual charge is different from what the police report indicates,” Williams said. “Before we file charges, we send the victim a letter asking if she will cooperate in prosecution. That is because if a hearing is scheduled and the victim doesn’t show up, the case can be thrown out of court.”

Washington County has a “no-drop” policy for domestic violence cases once they are filed, said Ray Seiberlich, victim advocate for Washington County Prosecutor’s office. Because it is hard to win a case without the victim’s testimony, prosecutors try to connect with a victim within 52 hours of receiving a report.

“That’s a 50-50 chance,” Seiberlich said. “Usually a defendant involved in domestic violence is very controlling and he’ll screen the woman’s calls or won’t let her use the phone. He controls when she can go to the store, how long she can stay there, whether she can have a job — everything in her life.”

Often, it takes six or seven calls before the victim finally decides to press charges, he added.

Seiberlich said St. Francois, Ste. Genevieve and Washington counties have high rates of domestic violence in relation to population. He estimates that Washington County handles about 100-120 cases of domestic violence each year. Prosecutors will not drop a case, even if the victim fails to show up for several court appearances, Seiberlich added.

About 75 percent of those are misdemeanors, or third-degree domestic assault charges. Those cases involve the abuser slapping the victim or pushing her against the wall. Typically, those found guilty are put on probation and ordered to take anger management classes, Seiberlich said.

The rest are mostly second-degree charges for more violent assaults that involve bleeding, serious bruising, swollen eyes, broken bones, etc. Life threatening injuries, such as those that require the victim be placed in intensive care, would result in a first-degree domestic assault charge, he explained.

To help victims of domestic violence, nearly all of whom are women, Seiberlich is working with C2000 and other agencies in Washington County to develop a victim coalition. The group includes representatives from local nonprofit agencies who will meet quarterly. One goal of the coalition is to help victims find resources.

For example, if an angry boyfriend breaks the locks to get into the house and abuse the victim, no agency exists to help her get new locks, Seiberlich said. The coalition will establish a fund that could go toward the new locks or other services, Seiberlich said.

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