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Battling for the abused

March 06, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Bruised by the barrage of threats from their abusive husbands or boyfriends, battered women have been losing a more important battle in the Washington County court system by dropping charges against their attackers, Mark Singer said.

It's a pattern that Singer, Washington County State's Attorney Victim Witness Unit coordinator, said he'd like to see end. It's also a cycle he said can be stopped if victims of domestic violence use the court system to their advantage.

In the last year, Singer said, the number of charges dropped against an alleged abuser has increased in the county court system, most often because abusers are filing complaints against the victim of abuse or because both the victim and abuser are arrested at the scene, sending both cases into a downward spiral of dismissal.

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Abusers are getting more savvy with the court system, said Lisa Enderlin, legal advocate with Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused (CASA), who works with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault by accompanying the abused to file charges or protective orders against their assailant. She'll also go with the abused to the courthouse for hearings.

"Most times, if you see that abuser's file, it's not their first offense," she said. "They probably know (the court system) better than you or I do and certainly more than the victim does."

Enderlin said alleged abusers take advantage of a few options available to them in court. If the alleged abuser and victim are married, the couple may use their one time "marital privilege" that enables them one opportunity to take the witness stand and claim their right to not testify against their spouse.

If a couple is not married, she said, the alleged abuser has the option to file a cross-complaint, which might allege that the victim abused the assailant during the altercation for which the abuser is charged.

"At some point, the defendant is getting advice and is filing charges against the victim," she said.

When women, which Enderlin said most often are the victims of abuse, hear that they have been charged with abuse against their attacker, they get "scared off."

In cases where both parties are charged, both usually end up pleading the Fifth Amendment, meaning that they are using their rights to not incriminate themselves in court, she said.

"She doesn't want to take a risk of testifying and he just really wants his charges dropped," Enderlin said.

Singer said the state's attorney's office does not take the request to drop charges lightly.

When police are called to the scene of a domestic dispute, more often than not, someone is going to get arrested, said Hagerstown Police Department Det. Steve Hoover, the department's domestic violence coordinator.

Twenty years ago, police would have gone to the scene of a domestic dispute, comforted the victim and separated her from her attacker. That would have been the end of story, but now, Hoover said, the law dictates that if abuse is evident, an arrest will be made.

It's a concept that Singer said he's not sure victims understand. Although victims are handed brochures explaining their rights at the time of an arrest, victims of abuse continue to claim that they didn't expect their assailant would actually get in trouble for abusing them.

If charges are filed by a victim with a District Court commissioner, Singer said, the victim is placed under oath for their testimonial and must adhere to that admission in court.

In January, a Hagerstown woman was given jail time by a Circuit Court judge for changing in court her statement made to a court commissioner.

If victims fail to appear in court, Singer said, they run the risk of giving police the authority to arrest them.

"They will ignore that summons thinking if I don't show up for court those charges will be dropped," he said, but that's not the case.

Hoover said police are becoming more aggressive in their pursuit of abusers. Through a process called pro-prosecution, police have the ability to treat the scene of a domestic violence crime as the scene of a murder, as if the victim is not there to speak for themselves.

He said police are being trained to look beyond the surface of a domestic abuse situation by collecting evidence that would enable them to point the finger at the aggressor and would lessen the chance that a victim, too, would be arrested at the scene because it's not clear who started the fight.

Prosecutors also look to see when a complaint filed by an abuser is made after they have been charged, which might indicate to the state the motives behind their filing, Singer said.

"We're not doing it to make her life miserable. We're doing it to help them in the future," he said.

But Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, said women often are very scared at the prospect of losing their abuser, who may be providing them with food or shelter.

"A lot of people want the abuse to stop, but may not want their partner to get arrested," she said. "They're under tremendous pressure not to testify by their abuser."

She said victims, who often have a long time to think about the charges before they head to court, may decide that they'd be safer if they don't pursue the charges.

"We need to be sensitive to the difficult decisions she has to make. They've gotta get child care, food, work ... these are all hard things to manage and, meanwhile, he's saying if you take me back, this will never happen again."

The likelihood it won't happen again decreases if the victim takes their story to court, Hoover said. Because of the police department's aggressive approach to domestic violence, he said the number of murders in domestic situations has dramatically decreased.

"People who abuse are people who should be prosecuted," he said.

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