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A 'private matter' that costs us plenty

August 23, 1998

Bob MaginnisIt's a sad story we've heard over and over again all over the region. A woman goes to court, claiming her husband or boyfriend has threatened to kill her. The court issues a protective order, but it doesn't deter the obsessed man, who stalks "his woman" and kills her, sometimes doing himself in afterward.

The latest Hagerstown victim in this grisly drama is Tina Marie Vinzant, shot to death a block from her North Locust Street home on August 5. Afterwards the suspect, her former live-in boyfriend John Stephen Weir, apparently turned the shotgun on himself.

To prevent future tragedies, on August 11 Hagerstown Councilmember J. Wallace McClure said there should be a program for abusers that would include 48 hours of incarceration and counseling for anyone making a death threat.

The 48-hour provision would require a change in state law, according to Martha Cornwell and Vicki Sadehvandi, board chairman and executive director, respectively, of CASA - Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused. Founded 21 years ago after Imogene Knode was killed by her estranged husband, CASA served 1,567 new clients in the last fiscal year.

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But CASA's services aren't just for victims. The agency also runs a program for batterers who need help in dealing with their anger. Batterers come to CASA in two ways, Sadehvandi said.

"Either they're referred here from the court or their attorney tells them, 'You ought to go in voluntarily so it'll look better at your trial,' " she said.

The first step is the assessment, which Sadehvandi said is done by a staffer who has a master's degree and has screened abusers to see whether they're "group-appropriate" for eight years.

They'll be admitted to the group, Sadehvandi said, if the staff decides "they are able to interact in a productive manner, so they won't be so hostile that the group won't accomplish anything."

Those judged too hostile, or who have other problems like substance abuse, are referred to outside agencies, she said.

So what happens in the group sessions?

First they learn about what abuse is, Sadehvandi said. Yes, slapping or hitting is abuse, but so is withholding money or food.

"We go through all forms of abuse and teach them alternative forms of behavior, and about how she feels," she said.

How effective is this sort of therapy in deterring repeat offenders?

It's hard to tell, Sadehvandi said, because it takes some abusers eight or nine sessions just to admit they have a problem. For some, a 24-week program isn't enough, and there's a need for outside programs that run 18 months or longer. CASA is participating in a research program now to evaluate the effectiveness of intervention, she said.

Are there common denominators in all these cases?

In many cases, the man is the sole support of the family, Sadehvandi said, because it allows him to maintain control. But aside from that, Sadehvandi said abuse occurs at all levels of society and its perpetrators are adept at concealing it.

"He could be the most charming person at work, and the pastor in the pulpit on Sunday, but he's also this raging maniac sometimes," she said.

Another factor: "Many of these women grew up watching dad beat up mom. And many of the women who end up being abused saw the same thing," Sadehvandi said.

"What we have stressed to the judges is that we would like them to order the victim into counseling as well, because unless she understands what's going on, even if she gets out of that relationship and into another, she'll just end up with another abuser," Sadehvandi said.

There also needs to be consequences for those abusers who don't complete their 24-week group sessions, or who don't cooperate while they're there, Sadehvandi said.

"We had a man in group who didn't want to be there and threatened to kill a staff member. It was thrown back on the staff member, who was told she could press charges herself. We can only do so much," she said.

Sadehvandi did credit local judges and Maryland's Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, for their support. More needs to be done, however, she said, because too many people, including jurors, don't believe it's the public's business if the abuse takes place inside the home.

None of the public's business? Only if you believe that some other taxpayer is paying for the police, court and prisons on this issue.

Consider this: Timothy Knode, the guy who began it all, is still in prison, at your expense, 20 years later. Wouldn't it have been nice if somehow society could have intervened to prevent that?

If you need help, call CASA's Hotline at (301) 739-8975.

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