Rais­ing aware­ness

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

The Sentinel-Record - HER - Hot Springs - - Her Cover - Story by Lara Far­rar, pho­tog­ra­phy by Grace Brown and Richard Ras­mussen

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.

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