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Laws help on the home front

April 24, 1998|By TERRY TALBERT

by Kevin G. Gilbert / staff photographer

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Victims of domestic violence in Washington County have a better chance at getting justice today than they did a few years ago, Washington County Circuit Court Judge Frederick C. Wright III told a panel of professionals at a conference in Hagerstown on Thursday.

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Wright, Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades and Washington County State's Attorney M. Kenneth Long Jr. participated in the 10th Annual Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect, which was sponsored by several local agencies that deal with domestic violence and juvenile justice.

During a panel discussion, the men talked about how attitudes toward domestic violence have changed.

"We judges always have the problem of doing justice for the victim and applying the law. They don't always mix. Many times justice is not done," Wright said.

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Wright said judges bring "their personal and legal experiences to court, and some biases to court."

Several years ago, Wright said all Maryland judges attended a mandatory two-day seminar on child abuse.

"It was poignant. It opened the eyes of many judges as to the effect of the cycle of domestic violence," he said. "I'll tell you from my experience judges are sensitive now, finally, to the effects of domestic violence."

He said judges "are really at the point of making the difference - putting into play something that makes the difference in victim's households," in an attempt to break or interrupt the cycle of abuse.

Wright cited new laws that help victims of abuse. Laws now allow judges to extend protective orders against abusers, award divorces on the grounds of domestic abuse, and sentence people who violate protective orders to up to a year in prison.

Wright said children are being given greater protection, with social service agencies placing new emphasis on finding them loving homes with adoptive parents instead of returning them to homes where there is a pattern of domestic violence.

"We have to tell the abusers they have no control any longer. That we're in control," Wright said.

Mades said his deputies are required to attend educational classes on domestic violence, and are trained in how to handle domestic violence calls - the most dangerous for a law enforcement officer.

He said a new law requires police agencies to screen officers to see if they have ever been convicted of domestic violence. Officers guilty of abuse cannot carry a weapon.

"If they can't have a gun they can't be an officer, so they're fired," Mades said.

He said none of his officers was affected by the law.

"It's an unfortunate fact that there is a higher degree of domestic violence in law enforcement officers' families than the population in general," he said.

Mades said in the past many officers have viewed victims of domestic violence with a jaundiced eye. "Officers were most likely to be sympathetic to abusers," he said. That's changing, he said.

Under a new "pro-prosecution initiative" in the county, Mades said if officers believe there's probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, they are ordered to gather evidence and bring charges.

One deputy is permanently assigned to a county Domestic Violence Team, members of which contact victims of abuse who have called police and offer help, Mades said.

"When I was new in this job and a woman refused to testify against an abuser we were only too glad and quick to say, 'Fine, dismiss the case,'" Long said of his early day as state's attorney.

A new law that gives allows abuse victims to refuse to testify against a spouse only once, and the pro-prosecution initiative by police have helped his agency prosecute abusers, he said.

Long said he and his prosecutors have been educated and sensitized to the problems and fears victims face, and is taking a harder line on domestic violence cases.

"For example, if a protective order is violated, we will prosecute," he said.

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