More people in Hot Springs are working to shed light on domestic abuse, but more needs to be done, especially as extremely violent instances of abuse appear to be on the rise
In the office of Sentinel Record newspaper, where HER Magazine is also based, there is a police scanner that is almost always audible. There are the usual car accidents, sometimes calls about shoplifters, robberies or drug-related crimes around Hot Springs.
There is another type of call to emergency responders that frequently comes across the scanner: calls concerning domestic abuse. Sometimes it is a heated argument between a man and a woman. Sometimes there is battery involved. Sometimes it is even more tragic, like when a woman was shot in early September in Hot Springs with injuries so serious she was airlifted to a hospital in Little Rock. Police said they suspected the incident was a possible case of domestic violence.
Only a few months before, the alleged perpetrator was arrested on a felony charge of second-degree domestic battery involving the same victim after he allegedly ran over her legs and her hand with his car.
Domestic violence “is one of the most common calls we get,” Hot Springs Police Department detective Jarret Cantrell said. “These situations can be the most dangerous. Every single time you go to a domestic violence call, tensions are really high. You never know how someone is going to react when someone they love called law enforcement on them. They may view it as broken trust.”
On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. This adds up to more than 10 million women and men who are abused annually. One in three women and one in four men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to NCADV.
In 2016, the Garland County Prosecuting Attorney’s office handled 446 criminal domestic violence cases. That number rose to 651 cases in 2017. So far, this year, the office has handled 584 criminal domestic cases. That number could reach or exceed 700 cases by the end of 2018, according to staff in the prosecuting attorney’s office.
“The volume is huge,” Garland County Prosecuting Attorney Michelle Lawrence said. “I think it is an overwhelming issue nationwide, and I think Garland County follows suit with the national trends.”
She noted that it is unclear whether instances of domestic abuse in the community are worsening or whether more people are simply reporting it.
“In my professional opinion, domestic violence has always been something people don’t really talk about,” she said. “It is behind closed doors, especially in the South, you just don’t talk about that stuff.”
The good news is that in Garland County, people are starting to talk about it more.
Members of the community are taking a more proactive approach to address the issue. The Garland County Domestic Violence Task Force, comprised of abuse survivors, attorneys, judges, government officials, counselors and other members from local nonprofits, is working to support victims and also to raise awareness in the area. The task force meets monthly. Meetings are open to the public. Information can be found on the group’s Facebook page.
In September, Ouachita Children’s Center learned it received a grant to open the city’s first shelter dedicated only to women and children who are victims of domestic abuse. OCC is looking for a location for the new shelter, which will include case managers, access to legal advice and even basic supplies, like food and clothing.
The shelter could be operational before the end of the year.
Angela Echols, an attorney, runs a non-profit that offers discounted legal services to victims of domestic abuse. Echols, who also heads up the domestic violence task force, organizes a monthly support group for women who are in or who have left abuse situations. Some of the abuse survivors who attend
her support group also try to attend court with victims so that they do not have to face their alleged abusers alone.
Also, for the first time in nearly a decade, National Park College is hosting a Domestic Violence Awareness conference on Oct. 24 – 25. The conference will feature panel discussions, including bystander intervention training. It will also feature The Clothesline Project, an exhibit of t-shirts created by the friends and families of individuals who have lost their lives to domestic violence.
Lawrence, the Garland County prosecuting attorney, is constantly on the front lines. Her office represents almost all domestic violence victims who have turned to law enforcement and have had charges filed against their alleged perpetrators. Her office has secured grants to hire a part-time attorney who solely focuses on domestic abuse cases. It also has secured grant money for a handful of staff who offer various types of support to victims. She describes domestic abuse as “a totally different animal.” “There are psychological components for a victim, sometimes children are involved, lots of different layers,” she said. “We have to handle it in a different way. Sometimes it takes five or six times for a victim to actually leave.”
In Arkansas, domestic abuse is either classified as a felony or as a misdemeanor, depending on the severity and frequency of the abuse. State law requires police to give potential victims of abuse a card notifying them of their rights and of resources available. They also are required to ask possible victims a series of questions to determine the seriousness of the potential threat. Such questions include: “Does the victim think the offender will try to kill the victim?” “Does the offender follow, spy on the victim, or leave the victim threatening messages?” “Does the offender have a weapon or can he/she get one easily?” Lawrence said one disturbing trend she is witnessing in the area is an increase in extremely violent abuse cases.
“Overall there is an increase in violence,” she said. “I don’t understand why, and it is not just here in Hot Springs. It is everywhere.”
Lawrence, along with Garland County District Judge Meredith Switzer, are pushing
for more victimless prosecution in the county whereby an alleged perpetrator could still go to trial even if the victim decides she does not want to press charges, which is not uncommon.
It can be an excruciating experience for a victim to have to face her abuser in a courtroom.
Switzer, who presides over domestic cases, which are heard once a month in district court, says she frequently sees victims decide to drop charges. This, she says, is frustrating because of the likelihood the violence will only escalate. In some cases, if a victim decides to drop charges, Switzer says she has the discretion to still pursue charges against the defendant, depending on the severity of the incident.
“I repeatedly see people who are suffering from battered women’s syndrome,” she said. “I see a number of individuals trying to cover for someone’s bad behavior when it comes to domestic violence. This is really scary to me. People can have really short memories, and that fear is easily forgotten.”
Battered women’s, or victim’s, syndrome, also known as trauma bonding, is almost like an addiction. Usually there is a cycle of abuse during which the abuser might apologize and return to the more caring, honeymoon phase of the relationship. The victim begins to crave this period, almost causing a type of psychosis where the traumatic incident is forgotten.
Switzer says she must constantly take on the delicate task of determine whether a situation is likely to get worse. Sometimes cases of abuse might only happen once. But there is always the risk that violence could escalate quickly and someone who maybe pushed a victim could eventually resort to extreme forms of abuse.
In her courtroom, she monitors the victims and their family members for any non-verbal cues that could indicate the alleged perpetrator is lying or that the situation is more serious than it seems. She is also in constant contact with the prosecuting attorney’s office and the police.
“I do lose sleep over it sometimes,” she said. “I try to ask questions, and I try to ask questions of the victim. I rely on the prosecutor and the victim coordinator to assess what the threat level is.”
Switzer says victims decide to drop charges because of how traumatic it is to follow-through with prosecution in court. Already, their daily lives with an abuser are extremely stressful, a constant battle not to “disrupt the apple cart,” the judge said.
“It is like living with someone who has a drug addiction or who is an alcoholic,” she said. “It is like walking on eggshells all of the time. It is not a healthy life, but at least it is steady. When you are a battered individual, you crave the steady times because you never know when the batterer is going to flip the switch.”
What also concerns Switzer, as well as Lawrence, the prosecuting attorney, is emotional and psychological abuse, which is often more invisible and also sometimes impossible to prosecute unless there is evidence of terroristic threatening or some other form of harassment.
Switzer says these victims are also less likely to come forward or to seek help because the wounds are not necessarily visible and this type of abuse is insidious, sometimes taking years to manifest. She calls verbal abuse a “silent killer.” “There is so much of it,” Switzer said. “I can tell you that I take terroristic threatening very, very seriously. Instilling fear in someone can sometimes be more powerful than actually harming someone. The victim can become a prisoner in her own home. I take that seriously.”
Unless a victim comes forward with evidence, maybe in the form of a text message, an email or something from social media, there is little the justice system, as of now, can do little for this type of abuse.
Switzer says she hopes that in time more resources and education will encourage victims of all forms of abuse to come forward and try to find the help they need to leave.
“We try to do the best with the resources we have,” she said. “We try to work with individuals, but I am a firm believer we could do better in providing more resources for victims.”
National Park College will host The Clothesline Project exhibit, featuring t-shirts commemorating individuals in Arkansas who have lost their lives to domestic violence. The exhibit will be on campus Oct. 24 - 25.
A memorial for domestic violence victims in Hot Springs.